Edward Burra

Mexican Church


Edward Burra 1905–1976
Gouache, graphite and ink on paper on canvas
Support: 1321 × 1035 mm
frame: 1620 × 1335 × 155 mm
Purchased 1940

Display caption

Burra visited Mexico in 1937 and this painting was based on two separate postcards collected at that time: one of an unusual recumbent crucifix in one church, the second of a reredos (or altarback), encrusted with ornamentation, in another (the postcards are displayed in a table case in this room. The decoration seems to be the focus of his attention. The addition of praying figures and the collection plate, however, show his awareness of the monuments' contemporary power and the small, poignant details of everyday life.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Edward Burra 1905-76

Mexican Church c.1938


Gouache and ink wash on paper laid down on canvas 1321 x 1035 (52 1/4 x 40 3/4)

Purchased from the artist through G.S. Corcoran (Knapping Fund) 1940

Tate Gallery Wartime Acquisitions, National Gallery, April-May 1942 (21, reproduced facing p.6)
A Selection from the Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions, Council for Education Music and Art tour, Royal Exchange, London, July-August 1942, Cheltenham Art Gallery, September, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, October, Galleries of Birmingham Society of Arts, November.-December, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, January-February 1943, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, February-March, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, March-April, Manchester City Art Gallery, April-May, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, May-June, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, June, Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery, Kelvingrove, July, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, August 1943 (7)
Contemporary British Art, British Council tour, Royal Agricultural Hall, Gezira, Cairo, January 1945 (5), Alexandria, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Rome, Algiers, 1945-6, Oran, Rabat, 1946 (no catalogue found for venues after Cairo)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, January-February 1946 (7), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (7), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (7), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (7, reproduced pl.7), Musée des Beaux Arts, Berne, August (7), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, September (7, repr. pl.7), Narodni Galerie, Prague, October-November (7, reproduced pl.7), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, November-December (7, reproduced pl.7), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, January-February 1947 (7)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-September 1947, publication supplemented as Fifty Years Tate Gallery 1897-1947: Pictures from the Tate Gallery Foundation Gift and Exhibition of Subsequent British Painting, (5167, reproduced pl.13)
Edward Burra, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1973 (68, reproduced p.60)
Edward Burra, Hayward Gallery, London, August-September 1985 (96)
Edward Burra, Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico, February-May 1987 (9, reproduced in colour on front cover)

Jan Gordon, ‘War-Time Acquisitions at the Tate’, Studio, vol.124, no.592, July 1942, pp.14-15, reproduced p.13
Herbert Furst, ‘Standards of Criticism’, Apollo, vol.36, July 1942, p.15, reproduced p.16
Contemporary British Art, exhibition catalogue, British Council tour, Royal Agricultural Hall, Gezira, Cairo 1945, [p.4]
John Rothenstein, Edward Burra, Harmondsworth 1945, p.16, reproduced in colour [p.43] pl.27 (as ‘1938’)
Journal of the Royal Society of Art, vol.94, no.94, 15 February 1946, p.201
John Davenport, ‘Burra-Burra Land’, Lilliput, vol.21, no.5, November 1947, p.376
Anthony Bertram, A Century of British Painting 1851-1951, 1951, p.110, reproduced p.206, pl.78
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.84-6, reproduced p. 431
John Rothestein, ‘Edward Burra as an Artist’ in William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.44
Mary Augusta Aiken, ‘The Best Painter of the American Scene’, William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.92
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.63, reproduced [p.126], no.146
Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.119, reproduced p.40 (colour)
William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985, p.114
Arts Review, no.16-17, August 1985, p.414
British Art in the Twentieth Century, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1987, p.423

Also reproduced:
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.257
John Rothenstein, ‘Developments in Style XII: Burra’, London Magazine, vol.3, no.2, March 1964, between pp.46 and 47
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.108 (in colour)

Undeterred by his weak health, Burra travelled extensively in the 1930s and gradually extended his scope across the Atlantic. He did not venture alone (always being accompanied by close companions), but his paintings convey an immersion in the ‘exotic’ encountered especially in Latin cultures which differed so fundamentally from the routine of family life in England. Just as with his visit to New York in 1933-4, so his trip to Mexico in 1937 had been preceded by a long fascination; he had ‘wanted, for as long as I can remember, to go to Mexico’.[1] This enthusiasm appears to have developed out of an equal love of Spain, where he had declared in 1933: ‘I don’t want to leave ... till I must’.[2] The thrill of the Spanish bullfights and flamenco dancing resulted in a scrapbook filled with cuttings and newspaper photographs of toreadors and singers;[3] it contains items from 1933 but has Mexican additions which confirm the perceived continuity. Burra’s connections with the USA - especially his close friendship with the poet Conrad Aiken and his wife Mary - opened more direct contact with Latin America, and an appreciation of Latin music experienced in New York surfaced in such paintings as Cuban Band (private collection).[4]

It was on a second visit to the USA to stay with the Aikens at Charlestown near Boston in January 1937, that Burra joined them on a trip to Mexico. On 12 May they took the train through the American South and on to Mexico City.[5] On arrival, Burra marvelled at his surroundings in which beauty and distortion ran side by side: ‘The bullfights are very good here [we] have already been twice & cinemas ... The dwarfs hunchbacks etc here are worthy of Glasgow to say nothing of other mysterious diseases. I believe smallpox is very prevalent ... The markets are fascinating but how you would pack the things I do not know’.[6] His interest in disease may stem from his own sickliness - he had not disguised his rheumatic hands in the photograph in Unit One[7] - but he found the climate difficult. In the same letter he complained of the effect of the high altitude of Mexico City and even when the party descended to Cuernavaca to stay with Malcolm Lowry - then beginning to write Under the Volcano - Burra suffered from the heat and humidity. After two weeks, with dysentery and rheumatic feet,[8] he returned to Boston alone in a state of collapse and needed to recuperate there for a month before returning to England in July.

The taxing physical effort seems to have restricted Burra’s activities and this is reflected in the fact that Mexican Church is the only image that can be linked in its entirety to the trip. Identifying it with the Cathedral of Mexico City, Mary Aiken recalled it as ‘a large painting of one of the chapels done from an amazing perspective view, and including with the figure on the tomb, all the surrounding bric-a-brac and a total ambience so extraordinary, that it was as if one could see and be the whole interior of the Cathedral at the same time’.[9] In fact, the composition amalgamated geographically separate sites which Burra visited, but for which he drew upon post cards as sources: the reredos from the cathedral in Taxco and the recumbent crucifix of El Señor de la Preciosa Sangre from Santa Caterina in Mexico City.[10] Close inspection shows that parts of the reredos were used twice, as the cherubim cut by the upper edge of the picture are reworked and placed on top of each other to form the altar canopy at the right. The generalisation of some of the details - seen especially in the shadows of the reredos - suggests the reliance upon the poor quality reproduction of the post cards. As Andrew Causey has noted, Burra also ‘added common people at prayer and an offertory plate, his interest being not simply in the richness of the environment but in its human value: the power it exerts and the piety it engenders’;[11] although it should be noted that offertory plates are visible in the Santa Caterina post card.

Mexican Church addresses the wealth and creativity associated with religious devotion. At the time, Burra revealed a complex blend of awe and amusement in telling his sister: ‘the churches are wonderful & such simple piety Ive never seen - people go on to such a pitch of devotion they even kneel a good quarter of a mile round the cathedral reciting the rosary supported by a friend in pale pink “crêpe”’.[12] Despite the presence of a woman with a pink skirt, the shrouded figures signal this piety. There are other notes of colour, but the dominant play of gold and black establishes the illusion of forms glowing in the dark which demonstrates Burra’s skilful handling of watercolour. The colouring and the surface design also contrast with the strong but rather unconvincingly steep perspective of the floor tiles, with the result that the space appears illogical and claustrophobic as it recedes into the blackness at the upper right.

The most striking aspect of the composition is the recumbent crucifix. The effigy from Santa Caterina offered Burra a viewpoint only usually experienced when looking up at wall-mounted sculptures. His focus upon the bleeding wounds (‘la Preciosa Sangre’) and the despairing face of the Christ figure highlight the concentration on the realistic cruelty of religious iconography prevalent in Mexican devotional art. The women shrouded in black appear to feel the suffering very directly, while a man makes the sign of the cross. The whiteness of the crucified figure is echoed in the saints’ surplices on the reredos and the candles at the right, which serve as signs of Christ’s role as the light of the world.

Burra’s reuse of traditional iconography was distinct from the apparently visionary inspiration and imagery of contemporaries such as Stanley Spencer who turned to religious subjects. Shortly after Mexican Church was acquired by the Tate Gallery, the then Director, John Rothenstein described him as ‘a painter ... of sardonic genre’,[13] but in other quarters its imagery could provoke dismay. Burra himself reported Clive Bell’s comment that the painting was ‘bravely bought’.[14] Another reviewer, remarking upon the ‘profound sombreness of its theme’ called it ‘a nightmare vision’,[15] while the publisher Sir Ernest Benn reused Rothenstein’s words in complaining that ‘this sardonic creation ... might have been borrowed from the anti-God pictures on which Lenin founded his regime’. Although in reporting this John Davenport dismissed it as fear at ‘his first glimpse of Burra-Burra Land’,[16] Benn had identified an ambiguity in Mexican Church. This is centred upon the painting’s juxtaposition of the plate with meagre offerings and the rich reredos (as an expression of the church’s wealth), a combination which might be seen as favouring Marx’s view of religion as the opium of the people. Furthermore, the presence of the man outside the railings, who is so clearly defined as an indigenous Indian, raises the question of the colonial imposition of a religion upon an advanced culture. Such issues were the substance of the didactic historical murals of post-revolutionary Mexico, and Andrew Causey has suggested that Burra was influenced - in subsequent paintings such as Soldiers at Rye (Tate Gallery N05377) - by seeing Diego Rivera’s cycle at Cuernavaca which related the Conquest and the Revolution.[17]

However, other evidence suggests that Burra sympathised more readily with Catholic piety than with Rivera’s Communism. Mexican Church is one of a number of his contemporary paintings concerned with religion, of which the most explicit are The Vision of St Theresa, 1938-9 and The Agony in the Garden, 1939.[18] In parallel works, such as Beelzebub, 1937-8 (private collection),[19] this is offset against acts of mythologically evil violence. Causey has linked this change to Burra’s reaction to the art and, above all, the events of the Civil War experienced in Spain in 1935 and 1936.[20] Certainly, these paintings are increasingly grim and dramatic in their depiction of threat and suffering, and they echo the photographs of the desecration of churches by the Republican side which the painter gathered in his scrap books.[21] John Rothenstein noted that while not partisan in the Civil War, Burra’s ‘horror at the burning of churches inclined him to identify the Franco party with civic stability’, and that he was ‘overwhelmed by the cruelty, destruction, hatred and death’.[22] That Burra had at the time ‘admitted he was pro-Franco’ Rothenstein later recorded.[23] While Mexican Church does not carry such destructive connotations, it is close to the ritual piety of Holy Week, Seville, 1939 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney)[24] in which the hooded bearers of the candle-lit effigy of the Virgin approach ominous darker figures stirring a smouldering cauldron. As Causey has commented, Burra’s ‘attitude to Catholicism is hard to gauge’ but that he shared with it a ‘sense of evil as something real’.[25]

As well as the subject matter and Burra’s fascination with the darker mysteries of humanity, Mexican Church demonstrated the confidence of his watercolours on an unusually ambitious scale for the medium. The size was secured by gluing sheets of paper together and by mounting them on a stretched canvas. The novelist Anthony Powell described Burra’s established method of working out a design from one corner, adding further sheets until ‘the final work [was] made up of perhaps three or four of those attached sections’.[26] Mexican Church was drawn across five sheets of white drawing paper, and inspection has revealed the sequence in which they were glued to one another with 15-20mm (9/16 - 3/4 in.) overlaps - some of which have required resticking.[27] The fact that the small sheet in the top right is behind those adjacent to it suggests that the image developed in three campaigns from the lower left, with additions being glued from behind as the composition expanded. The overlaps indicate the following sequence. The Crucifix occupies the first sheet, the top of which frames the flowers and the right edge of which passes under Christ’s wrist. The second and third sheets extended the whole image to the right, one providing the bottom corner, and the other, a narrow strip accommodating the tops of the railings and reaching the same horizontal edge as the original. The fourth sheet, in the upper left, carried all the reredos above the flowers and the shadow to the right, while the fifth sheet was filled by the side altar. Although the paint on all constituent sheets is consistent, it seems that Burra drew the Crucifix, then extended the composition to the right (perhaps feeling the need to include at least one of the hands) and then upwards. Significantly, the whole was trimmed after the image was completed and when the paper was laid down on the stretched canvas support.[28]

In common with his established practice, Burra outlined the details in pencil which is clearly visible in places. He then filled in the areas in layers of gouache, achieving the sombre darkness with the addition of black ink. Some flaking has resulted from the superimposition of ink over gouache, but the whole is in good condition.[29] The heavy working of some areas is in contrast to the thin wash of the blackness between the altars; unexpectedly, he achieved the texture of the end grain of the Cross and the wicker-work of the seated woman’s chair by scratching into the paint.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, p.14
[2] Burra, letter to Barbara Ker-Seymer from Granada [April-September 1933] Tate Gallery Archive 974.2.2
[3] Tate Gallery Archive 929.8.1
[4] Reproduced in colour in Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, p.40, pl.8, no.113
[5] Burra, letter to his sister, Anne Burra, 11 May 1937, Tate Gallery Archive 939.2.1
[6] Letter to Anne Burra, [May 1937], Tate Gallery Archive 939.2.1
[7] Unit One, London 1934, p.58
[8] Letter to Anne Burra, 29 June 1937, Tate Gallery Archive 939.2.1
[9] Mary Augusta Aiken, ‘The Best Painter of the American Scene’, William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, p.92
[10] Reproduced in Edward Burra, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1985, p.119, figs. xxv, xxvi
[11] Causey in Ibid.
[12] Letter to Anne Burra, [May 1937], Tate Gallery Archive 939.2.1
[13] Tate Gallery Wartime Acquisitions, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 1942
[14] Letter to Paul Nash, 5 May 1942, Tate Gallery Archive 7050.235
[15] Jan Gordon, ‘War-Time Acquisitions at the Tate’, Studio, vol.124, no.592, July 1942, pp.14-15
[16] John Davenport, ‘Burra-Burra Land’, Lilliput, vol.21, no.5, November 1947, p.376
[17] Andrew Causey, Edward Burra, Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1985, pp.65-6
[18] Reproduced ibid., [p.127], nos.151,152
[19] Reproduced ibid., [p.124], no.138
[20] Ibid., pp.58-62
[21] Tate Gallery Archive 929.8.1
[22] Edward Burra, 1973, p.23
[23] In William Chappell (ed.), Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered by his Friends, London 1982, pp.45-6
[24] Reproduced in Causey 1985, [p.127], no.154
[25] Ibid. p.65
[26] Anthony Powell, Messenger of the Day, quoted in Robert R Littman, A Sense of Place, Edward Burra and Paul Nash, exhibition catalogue, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1982, p.5
[27] Tate Gallery conservation files
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.

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