The World as a Stage

Looking at Patrick Burke’s paintings, few will doubt that it is an inner world that confronts them, rather than anything drawn directly from the seen. Perhaps it is a world best viewed at night, by artificial light, in the absence of daytime distractions. We attend the theatre and listen to music in the dark to help us focus our attention. Patrick Burke’s images make up an interior landscape with its own secret lore. We feel it is left to us whether to enter or ignore it.

What keys should we look for to open up this terrain? Earlier works by the artist make use of a dreamlike imagery, yet the present paintings seem far removed, in their basic spirit, from Surrealism. Many of the Surrealists saw themselves as impersonal agents, seeking to tap the irrational symbolism to be found, so they believed, in the collective subconscious. Burke’s work does not pretend to such a neutral role. Nor is it a direct attempt to continue the traditions of metaphysical symbolism laid down in the past by artists as various as Bosch, Boecklin, Redon and de Chirico. To make a comparison from the world of cinema, Burke’s symbolism seems closer to the highly considered kind found in the autobiographical films of Fellini than to the more brutal and apparently irrational metaphors of Bunuel. Possibly Burke’s metaphorical antecedents lie closer to those found in Caspar David Friedrich, Ensor and Munch than to that of the Surrealists who followed most closely in the Symbolist traditions: Dali and Magritte. However, like the last named, Burke has a methodical, almost fastidious way of making a painting. Here the dryness of the medium is surely part of the dryness of the message. It would be hard to imagine the artist’s wry, somewhat sardonic outlook expressed through a looser and more expressionistic way of working. Understatement and a degree of detachment seem central to the message he seeks to impart.

Often the artist’s work makes recognisable allusions to the work of other painters. Generally these allusions are integrated into a highly personal symbolism. To what extent is it possible or desirable to make direct interpretations of this?

The allusions, at least, are relatively obvious. Ingres, Léger, Magritte, Picasso and Schlemmer as well as the early Italian masters have become subjects of overt artistic tributes. At other times the pictorial sources are more veiled and possibly less deliberate. Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Vieira da Silva are the subject of sidelong glances rather than any direct attribution. Yet even where the historical reference is clear, its subject provides the artist with little more than a pictorial starting point.

The artist’s other regular source of imagery lacks any such cultural pedigree. Newspaper and magazine photographs are pored over, as often to find a pose as a face. Clothing and accessories worn by figures from either source are treated with a combination of meticulous observation and invention. Pierced ear-rims, tattoos, dogs’ collars, strange hairstyles and other punk trappings mingle with quieter fashions from other decades; strings of beads, dirndl skirts, hoop earrings. The artist employs patterned fabrics not simply as a convenient means of describing form but also for the sheer pleasure of painting them, much as Stanley Spencer once did. The artist’s colour conforms to a personal, often discordant logic. Claims have been made during this century that colour has a symbolism that is more universal and overriding than experience of commonsense might suggest. Patrick Burke’s personal colour schemes are precise in much the same way as those of the famous Dutch village where strict tradition decrees that the wooden house shall be painted in combinations of certain colours only: dark green, blue and red, as I remember. While art experts might debate the compositional and emotional significance of arbitrary-seeming dispositions of these colours on the village housing, the explanations are, in fact, much simpler. Each colour arrangement has its own, quite specific meaning: two blue windowsills – or somesuch – signifies two unmarried daughters in the householder’s family; a red front door and green barge-boarding mean something else equally clear-cut. If the young men of the village went by aesthetic considerations and the colour’s supposed ‘emotional’ impact only, a variety of important messages – to say nothing of the unmarried girls – would be likely to remain ungrasped.

Patrick Burke’s colour range is often on the sharp side – a phrase with musical and digestive associations. Mauves, oranges and acid greens predominate. These colours would serve to re-emphasise the other-worldliness of his imagery, if any such further reminder were needed. By contrast, human hair and flesh are treated in a relatively naturalistic way even in such theatrical groupings of figures as “Embarkation” No. 1986/16. In this large painting, seven figures and a cat are anchored loosely by a variety of constructional devices. All but two of the figures look directly at the viewer with quizzical expressions, while the remaining couple stare intently at unknown events occurring off-stage, to either side. The painting could be looked on as a metaphor for human isolation and alienation. Recognition of mortality and an accompanying, humorous resignation is another theme to which the artist returns.


“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players…”


Yet sometimes Patrick Burke’s sentiments seem closer to those often expressed by Dryden, than to the famous lines from As You Like It.


“When I consider life, ‘tis all a cheat;

Yet fool’d with hope, men favour the deceit…”


In Burke’s paintings, even when there are no props to suggest it, we are clearly in the presence of players. Man may play the role of clown, innocent, magician, or, more commonly, simply the dispassionate observer of the follies and allures of life on this planet. Frequently the follies and allures take on female form. In a painting numbered, rather than entitled 86/20, womanhood appears in the guise of a bare-breasted ringmaster. Top hat, hoop and an inward, self-satisfied gleam bode ill for those she will be putting through their paces.

Perhaps there is a danger of seeing too much that is directly autobiographical in Patrick Burke’s painting, although recurrent themes unquestionably occur. Three muses appear frequently in a variety of forms. One is fair, the others dark; but here pigmentation lacks associative symbolism.

In one painting “Nightscape No.4” 1986/19, regular members of the cast appear, with women tugging a large beach-ball this way and that. As happens in many of the paintings, construction takes place on a variety of levels; that of the bikini-clad figures in a form of flattened perspective, while the accompanying abstract geometry adds an element of strictly two-dimensional design. To add complexity, the two kinds of pictorial construction sometimes, although by no means always, interlock. Further doubt is cast on the pretence of mere appearances.

Nor does the geometrical abstraction the artist uses exist at one level only. Often it is made up from pure shapes mixed with other forms which have outside associations, notably with games of chance. Here the idea of playing at a gaming table amplifies the symbolism of theatrical playing already present; games of chance are simply playing of another kind. Is the result predetermined when the die is cast? What other forms of playing do mortals practise? Performance on musical instruments is one and, significantly, music forms the third string to the artist’s bow. Quavers, minims, sharp signs and other forms of musical notation take their place in an overall compositional approach which owes something to the theories of musical analogy advanced by Kandinsky. As has been argued already, colour can have strands of significance outside the simply associative or emotional. Further illustration of this may be found in occult symbolism, tribal decorations, necromancy and religious pomp where uses of colour may fall into either or neither category. More everyday employment of colour in fields such as map-making may lack direct associations either. One might question why British dominions were once shown in red. Did this have any more significance than an alternative colour?

In the context of current artistic modes, Patrick Burke could hardly have hit on a less fashionable way of working. For while contemporary critical emphasis tends to extol the virtues of truth to materials or the often accidental cut-and-thrust of expressionistic manners of painting, the artist pursues his idiosyncratic, complex and pre-meditated method, even hopping across disciplines to draw on the riches of literature and music.

Paradoxically, for an age vaunting itself on its artistic freedom, ours is one which is far too ready with its aesthetic proscriptions. Artists may find themselves told that this or that way of working is outmoded or irrelevant until suddenly new, equally arbitrary sets of prohibitions are devised. Happily most mature artists are able to dismiss the artificial ideas of others on what is, or is not, artistically admissible. It is much more vital for the artist to believe wholeheartedly in what he or she is doing. Honesty of this kind is the source of genuine variety in art. Patrick Burke’s work has an obsessive quality which relates as much to medieval alchemy as to contemporary painting. Often his colours seem most delicately measured out for the finest of balances. Tiny bands of variegated colour, faintly reminiscent of medal ribbons or printers’ test-strips occupy the more obscure corners of his paintings. The degree of precision sought seems to go beyond the merely pictorial. Here we are in the presence of symbolic ledgers wherein letters, wheels, scrolls and roundels, as well as numerals play mysterious roles in keeping the books straight for posterity. Accuracy is vital for these are private diaries of a lifetime’s experience.

Giles Auty    1987        Art Correspondent of The Spectator


Patrick Burke. A review of an exhibition of his work at Brighton Polytechnic Gallery, 1987

Is anything more mysterious than perfect clarity? The attraction of such a precise science as mathematics must be just that: its unnatural clarity, beside which the rest of nature, and our own nature in particular, blurs into obscurity.

People and portraits have become the central preoccupation in Patrick Burke’s recent paintings yet the clarity with which they are presented almost amounts to a mystery. His drawing is of a simplicity and refinement that so far overtakes and outstrips naturalism that it seems to reach the other side of the atmosphere, and to bring back a startlingly direct and undistorted message. It recalls Léger and even Schlemmer, for clarity brings everything and everyone to a standstill and the immobilized figures, with their refined and simplified drawing, have at least one foot in the ideal world of Purism.

Patrick Burke’s colour achieves the same unmediated intensity. Primaries and secondaries scarcely modified by the rarified air of this other, waking-dream world, compose great areas of each canvas. It is as if the vibrant equilibrium of the Dutch interior with its single figure amid the homely geometry of doors and walls and windows has been translated into an equally artful account of an equally unremarkable everyday life: the one we live in the late 20th century.

A man in a dull, dark business suit, or a woman in fancy dress – of a cut to be seen on any smart street – is preserved like a bee in amber or a serving maid in Vermeer by the hard, bright geometry of Mondrian. It is extraordinary to see how credibly Patrick Burke can pin a portrait or figure of heightened realism into an ‘interior’ of absolute abstraction. It is as disconcerting as seeing a butterfly more revealingly displayed at the centre of a glazed, rectangular drawer than glimpsed swerving about in the unbounded natural world.

Just as Vermeer’s and de Hoogh’s interiors transpose a real world of tiled floors and white-washed walls into a metaphysical realm of the ideal that can elevate or diminish us, so Patrick Burke’s paintings of his and our contemporaries communicate on two levels. He is a painter who has registered the full impact of abstraction from Kandinsky and Neo-Plasticism onwards and yet one who has anticipated the current resurgence of figuration not by junking his geometric idiom but by integrating one with the other.

Since De Stijl and the International Movement, we have re-made everything from our city streets, High Tech offices, Post-Modern interiors and even the typography of style magazines to project and impose an inhuman ideal of order. This ideal geometry whether of the abstract painting or the Utopian cityscape is an amber of our own extrusion, and we are stuck in it.

Patrick Burke’s paintings with their strange and beautiful mixture of immediacy and distance and their alternation between figurative and non-figurative conventions, clearly place a cast of all the human types in a real world. But in spite of the scrupulous honesty with which it is depicted, the ambiguity is unavoidable. Are these figures and interiors imaging integration or alienation?

The vivid idiosyncrasy of Patrick Burke’s art is itself so engaging that it is easy to take its wry wit at face value. Everything is so bright and fits together so neatly that, like our vision of the future, it works to perfection. Does he present us with our world, an ideal, their reconciliation or an absurd charade? Painting that has this technical elegance and subtlety of mind can afford to leave us in some doubt.

Larry Berryman  Art Critic  1987


‘Personages and Performers’ – Paintings by Patrick Burke

An introduction to an exhibition at Charleston Farmhouse, East Sussex 2007


Patrick Burke is a Brighton artist – living and working in Brighton after studying painting at Brighton College of Art and teaching there, part-time from 1965 and then as Head of Painting as the school became a Polytechnic (and subsequently part of Brighton University). He retired in 1991 to concentrate fully on his painting.

He shows here a selection of his figure paintings, most of them completed recently though he was eager to include some earlier examples, among them the large Masquerade of 1987. Who and what are these persons, active and inactive, solitary or brought together for some sort of interaction or none?

They are painted with meticulous skill, their placing, scale, colours, volumes and visual weight finely adjusted to give us a sense of their near-reality, though clearly they belong to another world. Born of his imagination, they enter ours. Even the heads suggest fiction; they are presences, not portraits. Their settings are tuned to make for tensions between them, and to suggest space and possible movement within the stillness.

There’s a fine tradition of imaginative figure painting within modern art in spite of all the emphasis on impressionistic and expressionistic styles, on abstraction and surrealist fantasy. The figures we see here belong to this poetic tradition. It is not especially English, though a few English painters contributed to it brilliantly, among them Edward Burra and John Armstrong. It belongs more to the Continent, to France and Italy, and to some German painters of the Twenties.

Norbert Lynton 2007