Let no one say burlesque isn’t inspiring. Art exhibition A Brush With Burlesque showcases the vision of 13 international UK-based visual artists, with styles and techniques as diverse as those of their bump-and-grinding muses.

This ten-day celebration of burlesque is housed at Brick Lane’s East Gallery, where past highlights include collective show Boy BANG Boy, a Ben Westwood solo exhibition and Junior Apprentice 2010. Curated by Mark and Sarah Bell of Devon production company Kinky & Quirky, the array of canvases, prints and sketches on display depicts an extensive cross-section of UK burlesque bombshells. More than a catalogue of dancers, though, A Brush With Burlesque is a chronicle of the effects of the art form: the themes, the moves, the audience’s gaze and the lingering sense of larger-than-life beauty.


Starburst by Charlotte Rhodes


Fancy by Linda O'Grady

Scottish nude and portrait painter Linda O’Grady makes iconic tableaux of fleeting and intimate moments, creating a spectacle of the female figure with bold brush strokes in vivid colours and glittering pigments. Mark Bell’s oils, by contrast, pierce the glamour of dancers onstage to reveal a down-to-earth humanity with disarming candour. Working from life models and photographs, Charlotte Rhodes contributes striking paintings of Australian dancer Sarina del Fuego in action poses, mixing oil, acrylic, glitter and imitation gold leaf. Her drawings, though, mostly watercolour pencil on card, offer little beyond unimaginative pin-up pastiches and live modelling studies.


Missy Macabre by Ella Guru

Portraits make up a sizable portion of the works. American artist Ella Guru chooses her models among East London variety performers, rendering them in stately poses and allegorical settings reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. Fiona Wilson’s canvases, often depicting performers in full shot, are remarkable in their contained energy and casual elegance, a la Sargent. The felt-tip playfulness of Pip Bayley’s illustrations convey the personality of their subjects with superb lightness of touch, imprinting modern burlesquers and timeless idols like Audrey Hepburn with agile cartoon charm.


Josephine Baker by Pip Bayley

Poster art is well represented in the exhibition, with a good number of prints by Joe Armitage for Sheffield show Burly Q, plus designs for Leeds revue The Wet Spot by Kev Grey and Charlotte Thomson. Borrowing from comic books, vintage billboards and tattoo art, the clever and eye-catching posters favour an edgy rockabilly-tinted aesthetic over the delicate pin-up style of most mainstream burlesque in London, and have become collectors’ items among variety fans far beyond the locations of the events they advertise.

Timed to overlap with Chaz Royal’s World Burlesque Games, the show gives visitors a rare opportunity: you can see some of the country’s most established burlesque performers in portraits by day and onstage at night. Subjects on display include Cat Aclysmic, Billie Rae, Frankii Wilde and Kiki Kaboom, all of which will appear in one or more evenings of the festival. Anna Fur Laxis, the most depicted burlesquer in the exhibition, is sadly absent not only from the Games, but from London’s variety stages in general, despite headlining shows throughout Britain with dazzling routines full of sensuality, sarcasm and the most elaborate sets and props you’re likely to see this side of a Dita Von Teese number.

joearmitage-burlyq-annafurlaxis charlottethomson-wetspot-annafurlaxis
Anna Fur Laxis re-imagined by Joe Armitage for Burly Q and Charlotte Thomson for The Wet Spot

All artwork on display is for sale, with prices ranging from £45 for limited-edition portrait prints to £1,000 or more for the larger canvases. Postcard sets, poster prints, key rings and other merchandise are also available. But even if you’re not in an acquisitive mood, the exhibition is worth a visit or two. A Brush With Burlesque offers a rich and representative selection of the acts, shows and artists that have made burlesque a thriving scene in the UK. You don’t see a nationwide performance circuit squeezed into a single gallery every day.

A Brush With Burlesque. Curated by Mark and Sarah Bell. East Gallery, London E1 6SA. 3-13 May, 13:00-19:00. www.abrushwithburlesque.com.

Correction: this review was emended on May 9th, 2012. It previously gave the number of artists featured in the exhibition as 12.


Images courtesy of the artists