Edward Burra

Keep your Head


Not on display

Edward Burra 1905–1976
Printed papers and graphite on paper
Unconfirmed: 597 × 543 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

Burra’s clear line allows a cutting observation of contemporary life. Scenes with Figures shows fashionable life in the south of France, with its voracious appetites, while in Keep Your Head he explored the unexpected juxtapositions of photomontage. Both works reflect his growing awareness in Surrealism, even though he never officially joined the movement.

Gallery label, April 2008

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Keep Your Head 1930


Collage and pencil on paper 568 x 382 (22 3/8 x 15 1/16)

Purchased from the Hamet Gallery, London (W. Evans Fund) 1971

Edward Burra: Drawings of the 20s and 30s, Hamet Gallery, London, October 1971 (28)
Britain’s Contribution to Surrealism of the 30s and 40s, Hamet Gallery, London, November 1971 (18) reproduced [p.8]
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July, 1973 (28, reproduced p.43)

Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, London 1974, pp.91-2, reproduced pp.39, 91
Sarah Griffiths, ‘Edward Burra: “an eccentric, talented, delicate creature”’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.80, 1977, pp.18, 23, reproduced p.21
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, reproduced [p.110], no.63
Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, pp.305, 307, 319, 338

‘Recent Acquisitions at the Tate’, Studio International, vol.184, no.948, October 1972, p.137

During 1929-30 Edward Burra added newspaper and magazine photographs to his drawings to achieve more complex juxtapositions. The results may be broadly divided between photomontages, in which the image was composed largely from photographic fragments, and drawings in which the collage elements provide isolated details. Keep Your Head is one of a number of examples of the second type which are datable to 1930. They show Burra re-integrating photography with his own drawing after such photomontages of the previous year as Composition Collage, 1929 (private collection).[1] The careful selection of appropriate images even allowed for the inclusion of photographs in the watercolour The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1930 (private collection).[2]

The use of photography in Keep Your Head is confined to five faces and the torso of the central seated figure. The human features were cut from newspapers and, although in good condition for their age, they have yellowed. The present title - suggested to the artist by the Hamet Gallery in 1971 - draws attention to the fact that this central figure has removed her own head and, holding it by the hair, appears to feed it to an anthropomorphic pet below. In its place, a black and white diagram of a pulley doubles as a robotic face; this is set on a mechanical body, made up of a bluish illustration of the cross-section through an engine, subsequently identified by the artist as that of a Rolls-Royce.[3] Her counterparts appear in The Eruption of Vesuvius where gears and cogs serve as heads for similar figures; one of these - in an action complementary to that in Keep Your Head - selects a human head from those piled in a fruit-bowl. In both, the mechanical underlies human appearance and parallels a conjunction of photographic and hand-drawn techniques in the making of the work. That this was seen as an innovation for the artist is confirmed in his frequently quoted letter - with characteristic language and spelling - to Barbara Key-Seymer. This describes the use of post card and film star images in The Eruption of Vesuvius:

Thankyou for the 2 daintie p c’s they will be so useful for my new pictures we never bother to paint in this part now we just stick on things instead. I have such a twee one started of 2 ladys walking along with peices of motor engine for heads & a table at the side made of anita paiges legs with a drawn in top and a large dishful of heads reposing on it[4]

The density of detail helped to impose a uniformity across the composition of The Eruption of Vesuvius, but this is not the case in Keep Your Head. Rather, the integration of the details is achieved through the controlling continuity of the sinuous pencil line. The swathed head of the right hand woman, for instance, is extended into cushioning rolls of material around her neck, which fall to provide the complex background to the suspended head; her heavy hands recall those of Picasso’s classical drawings of the early 1920s. Just as the image itself occupied a carefully defined area on the sheet of paper (423 x 367 mm; 16 5/8 x 14 7/16 in.), so Burra plotted the main details with faint lines which were then strengthened; some, such as the ear-rings and hair of the main figure, were never reinforced further. Close inspection reveals that the locations of the photographic elements were also marked prior to pasting. According to the earlier Tate Catalogue, the artist particularly ‘drew attention to how carefully he had cut out the images’,[5] and this precision was reflected in the care taken to limit excess glue. Nevertheless, some small glue stains, principally in the area of the dagger, required bleaching treatment on acquisition.[6]

Burra’s control of the elements is facilitated by the simplicity of the shallow space and reduced details. This is found to a lesser extent in the more complex images of Collage, 1930 (whereabouts unknown) and Venez avec moi, 1930 (Leeds City Art Gallery).[7] Sarah Griffiths has suggested persuasively that the tiers in the latter, which resemble theatre boxes, may relate to the artist’s contemporary designs for the Constant Lambert and Frederick Ashton ballet A Day in a Southern Port, 1931 - subsequently known as Rio Grande.[8] A backdrop with a Mediterranean view was framed with balconies and, although Keep Your Head was much simpler, a similar theatrical space may be relevant. Andrew Stephenson, in his close reading of the physiognomy and taxonomy of figures in Burra’s work in the light of contemporary theories of deviancy, has identified the setting of The Eruption of Vesuvius as a brothel at the moment of the prostitutes’ parade.[9] Although Keep Your Head is less detailed, he relates the masks to discussions of sexuality and the objectification of the body by the former Surrealists Georges Limbour and Michel Leiris in Documents in 1930.[10] Further noting that the ‘display of the female figure’ is linked to ‘physical danger or explicit violence’,[11] Stephenson interprets the beheading of the main figure ‘by a masked attacker’ in Freudian terms of ‘male penetration’. He relates this violence to the disruption implicit in the collage process.

In the letter to Ker-Seymer the ‘we’ seems to refer to Burra’s collaboration with Nash who was important as a mediator of ideas. Although rare, their collaboration on Rough on Rats (private collection),[12] signalled the artists’ interest in the anonymity both of the source material from popular culture - newspapers, magazine, post cards - and of the process of photomontage, which circumvented their individual style. Such anonymity was already associated with commercial photomontages, such as an advertisement for the fashion house ‘Norine’ (many of which were, in fact, designed by René Magritte) sent to Burra as a post card by the artist Sophie Fedorovich.[13] It may also point to the artists’ awareness of earlier collaborative photomontages through Continental art periodicals. Causey has drawn attention to the similarity between Burra’s collages and the deliberately peculiar photographs of mechanisms ‘related to the human head’ - such as eye-testing equipment - published in Variétés (15 January 1930), a Belgian periodical which was Surrealist in orientation and to which he and Nash shared a subscription.[14] To these may be added the example of Albert Valentin’s photomontages reproduced in an edition of the same periodical still in Burra’s library.[15] The artist later acknowledged the influence of the work of George Grosz;[16] this has been linked to Burra’s interest in the German periodical Der Querschnitt, but Grosz’s illustrations there were relatively minor and infrequent. Stephenson has explored the influence of Max Ernst’s Surrealist collage novels, especially La Femme 100 têtes (Paris 1929) of which Paul Nash owned a copy, on Burra’s experiments with irrationality through the medium.[17]

Although Burra’s combination of drawing and photographic elements in Keep Your Head differed from these precedents they share a common emphasis on humour. The artist was an avid cinema-goer and his collage used such popular culture directly; here, the collaged eyes suggest the glamorous film stars in photographs in the film magazines - such as Cinéma pour Tous - which Burra read in the late 1920s.[18] It has been suggested that the man’s head at the top left ‘is very similar’ to one of a woman reproduced in Der Querschnitt in 1929;[19] the similarity rests simply on the open mouth. More broadly, the revelation of the machine interior of the central figure relates to automata in contemporary films, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The result may be seen to comment on the mechanisation of society and a resulting loss of humanity. This may be compared to the immanent end of civilisation suggested in the related image and title of The Eruption of Vesuvius.

Burra’s use of photomontage and collage was short-lived, being confined to 1929-30.[20] He contributed unspecified collages to the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris (Galerie des beaux arts, Paris 1938), and The Eruption of Vesuvius was reproduced in Cahiers d’Art in 1938.[21] After that, eight - including Keep Your Head - were stored in a cupboard in Burra’s house and were not re-discovered until 1969.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Reproduced in colour in Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.33, no.45
[2] Reproduced ibid., [p.110], no.62
[3] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, London 1974, p.92
[4] Burra, letter to Barbara Key-Seymer, postmarked 23 January 1930, Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2)
[5] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, p.92
[6] Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.109, 112], nos.59 and 69
[8] Sarah Griffiths, ‘Edward Burra: “an eccentric, talented, delicate creature”’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.80, 1977, p.18
[9] Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Work of Edward Burra, 1919-1936: Context and Imagery’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh 1988, pp.297-9
[10] Ibid. pp.313-14
[11] Ibid., p.319
[12] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.111], no.66
[13] Sophie Fedorovich to Burra, 7 October 1929, Tate Gallery Archive 939.2.4, reproduced ibid., p.30, fig.13
[14] Causey 1985, pp.24, 28-9
[15] Variétés, vol.2, no.4, 15 August 1929, between pp.248 and 249; Burra library, Tate Gallery Library
[16] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, p.92
[17] Stephenson 1988, pp.321, 325-9
[18] Burra library, Tate Gallery Library
[19] Tate Gallery Report 1972-4, p.92; Der Querschnitt, vol.9, no.7, 1929
[20] Causey 1985, p.29
[21] Herbert Read, ‘L’Art contemporain en Angleterre’, Cahiers d’Art, vol.13, no.1-2, p.33


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