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1 January 2012

Edward Burra watercolour of a straw man being kicked around by a group of men

Edward Burra, The Straw Man, 1963, Watercolour on paper, Pallant House Gallery (Loan from a private collection)© Estate of the Artist c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London

The first major exhibition for 25 years of the highly individual work of the popular British artist Edward Burra (1905–1976) is on show at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2012. Colin Hambrook reviews the artists' life and works of this exceptional watercolourist who documented significant moments in the second half of the 20th century.

Living with a disability is never easy. So often, as disabled people. we don't want to talk about it. we'd much rather just get on with things as best we can, rather than be thought of as 'different' because of impairment. The media doesn't help with the kinds of portrayals it accords us. Not a day goes by without some media coverage of disabled people as heroes or scroungers; fakirs, fakers or takers, depending on whether we are being depicted as brave, tragic or evil.

Art history so often misrepresents the stories of many artists whose disability is not publicly accorded - except in negative, patronising or demonising terms. Yet the history of art is sprinkled with enigmas - artists who have taken the limitations of living with an impaired body, and resolved those limitations in an idiosyncratic way that has produced truly original results.

Edward Burra is one such artist. His paintings - over a period of 50 years - chronicled key moments in the 20th century from Paris in the 1920s, Harlem in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War and the blitz of the second world war - and later his landscapes expressing the ravages of the post-industrial age.

In his introduction to the Tate retrospective of 1973, Sir John Rothenstein cites 'evil' as Burra's subject matter. But I wonder if that analysis - as indeed much of subsequent art historians' exploration of Burra - is tied up in a non-disabled interpretation of disability.

In his BBC Four documentary 'I Never Tell Anybody Anything', Andrew Graham-Dixon lays great emphasis on the artist, as an individual incapable of sexual expression; a man who sublimates his sexuality through his art. On several occasions he alludes to Burra's camp manner, implying he was gay. But he doesn't talk about it and leaves an impression that Burra was too physically impaired to 'be' gay.

like George Melly's judgement from the Hayward Gallery's exhibition catalogue from 1985 that Edward Burra was a man who "adored bad behaviour", although Melly mitigates this idea with the notion that Burra viewed life with a certain "envy", as an outsider, excluded by ill-health.

Burra lived his life to the full and portrayed a love of life and music, revelling in the jazz age - especially in his depictions of the life and soul of Harlem. I would prefer to believe that Burra's subject matter was human nature in all its extremities. His painting took a grave turn after the artists' first hand exposure to the Spanish civil war. The darkly imaginative bird-like figures that inhabited Burra's war-time paintings were emblematic of a deeply embedded cynicism, that led him to the conclusion that nothing in life has meaning - as he intimates in a rare filmed interview, made in preparation for the Tate retrospective in 1973.

I remember being hooked on Burra's work from first exposure in the 1980s. However, I only recently realised that Burra was a disabled artist (although given his personality, it is probably unlikely he would ever have acceded to being called as such). And I wonder how much of his deeply-seated reluctance towards either himself or his art being put under a spotlight, was to do with an ambivalence towards any discussion or judgment in the light of disability.

I look forward to spending more time with Burra's paintings with their wonderful, vibrant use of colour: at turns humourous or unsettling, but always expressive of a deeply intelligent imagination.

This major retrospective of Burra's work is on show at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 19 February 2012.

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