TORONTO — In the discussion around underrepresented female artists in the art world, one name is slowly becoming more well known. Famous in Canada for being a kind of “wild woman of the woods,” Emily Carr was a fiercely independent artist of the early 20th century who did paintings and drawings of the British Columbia landscape, but who is perhaps better known for her eccentricities, like keeping monkeys and parrots as house pets.
Thanks to a well-received exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London last November, now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and not to mention the seven works presented in a group show at Documenta 13 in 2012, Carr’s work is increasingly being shown in international exhibitions. What took so long?
“There may’ve been the assumption because of our traditional Canadian lack of arrogance that this was our treasure, so we would be the only ones interested in it,” explains Sarah Milroy, co-curator of the Art Gallery show, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia. “Honestly, it’s very hard to account for. What was so striking in the British context was how quickly they caught on to her. It’s not like it was hard to make a case for her in the international scene.”
“There can be a problematic allure to the female artist,” she explains, “particularly one with as colorful a life story as Carr’s. We tried to stay away from the monkey thing with Carr — we joked, “This is a monkey-free zone!” But, her colorful story probably would have, as in the case of Frida Kahlo, furthered her accessibility as an international artist.”
Born in 1871 in Victoria, British Columbia to British immigrant parents who died when she was a teenager, Carr was one of nine children. She attended art schools in both her hometown as well as in San Francisco and London, but felt herself an outsider, as evidenced by the self-mocking cartoons she made of herself in a “Funny Book,” currently displayed at the AGO show. Early in her career, Carr painted aspects of indigenous culture (and wrote about it) at a time when compatriots were more interested in subjugation. Some have perceived Carr as a flat-out appropriator (and even thief) of native work, though that view has been re-assessed. The truth, as presented in the show, is a bit more complex. Many notebooks on display give the viewer a sense of her process, and the focus on rarely-seen drawings shows a woman who seemed to be wrestling with opposing forces, ones tied to her British colonial past, her fascination with First Nations culture, and her deep love of nature.
Carr’s best-known work, “Indian Church” (1929) clearly depicts some of these instincts. Raised in a polite, Anglophone society, Carr felt alone and isolated, and longed for the freedom she felt in her travels, especially those in and around the British Columbia coast and interior. The tidy white lines of the church (displayed in the show’s first room) contrast sharply not only with the greenery depicted in the painting, but with the works displayed around it, many of which use a much looser style. “Cedar,” a painting of a wild landscape featuring intersecting tree branches, from 1942, shows Carr “thinking with her hand,” says Milroy.
Central to organizing the exhibition was artist James Hart, First Nations carver and hereditary chief, whose advice and guidance was instrumental to putting the exhibition together. Hart’s own lineage is, in fact, referenced in some of Carr’s works. In “Totem and Forest” (1931) some viewers might see European references, while Hart sees his own family. First Nations voices play an important and sometimes direct role in the show, with audio providing explanations and experiences related to the artifacts on display, many of which were loaned by the Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver) and private collectors.
There’s a clear progression in Carr’s work (and confidence), from dainty watercolors at the start to bold, daring oil works by the end of her life. The artist stopped painting for 15 years when an early show produced lukewarm reviews and very few sales; needing a steady income, Carr ran a boarding house and bred dogs. In her eventual return to painting, she discovered her audience was not the British Columbia government (who had shown utter indifference to her work) but museum directors, prominent families, and bankers.
The Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris in particular was key to Carr’s return to painting. “They gave each other a lot of solace and encouragement,” Milroy notes. Carr was also inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s Jack-in-the-Pulpit series, and she found a growing identification with the D’Sonoqua, a native mythological figure that represents the darker sides of the Canadian wilderness and that Carr came to perceive as a kind of guardian spirit. The identification, fraught as it may have been culturally, also represented a step forward for Carr in that she went against Edwardian ideals of femininity. As the exhibition catalogue notes, Carr made eight paintings between 1928 and 1931 that depict strong female totem figures, including “Totem Mother, Kitwancool” (1928), which heavily recalls Harris’s Cubist-style works, and integrates the mythological, the stylistic, and the personal; Carr’s mother died when the artist was just fifteen, and the painting references both a gentle, protective quality (one she never found in her home life), as well as a powerful natural force that is deeply attuned to the wilderness in which Carr found a kind of refuge.
She eventually moved away from native subject matter and dove head first into heavily stylized landscapes. These pieces (done roughly between 1929 and 1939) were a hit among British critics, who made comparisons to van Gogh and Munch. Carr was also heavily influenced by the writings of Walt Whitman during this time. A work simply titled “Happiness” (1939) shows light bursting out from behind a tree, creating a kind of ‘divine nature’ aesthetic. The exhibition’s final room, with its theme “Out to the Sea, Out to the Sky,” continues this joyful mood through scenes of ocean and sky; there is none of the dark, mysterious insularity displayed at the show’s entrance, but rather a sense of openness, summertime, and freedom.
Altogether, the works in From the Forest to the Sea reflect the idea of “doing something you love,” as Milroy put it. The work also leaves the impression of someone who was trying to understand (indeed one of the show’s rooms is subtitled “Trying To Understand”) her place as a woman in the both the art world and wider early 20th century society. We see, in early works, Carr “trying to understand” what it meant to be a Canadian woman under the thumb of British rule; in later works, she probes her complex relationship, as a white woman, with native culture. In her later work, identity is not as big of a focus, and she seems to simply embrace the great talent that lay beneath so many layers of lived experience.
“Her place in art history, as a contributor to the language of painting, is now being seen,” Milory said. “So it’s not really so much about her being an artist gaining momentum, but helping her be seen as a great painter.”
From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas St W, Toronto, Ontario) through August 9.
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