I thought I knew about Emily Carr. After all, she comes from British Columbia, her iconic paintings of totems and trees are familiar, and I own (but have not read) a book she wrote that I was given in high school. Everyone knows about Emily Carr, right? Wrong. The new Emily Carr exhibition which opened at the Ontario At Gallery last week is full of surprises. The co-curators have pulled together the best of her work, from across the full span of her career. They have set it all in context, and made her come alive as never before. Juxtaposed with her paintings are magnificent examples of the First Nations art which inspired her. Put together, they leave a lasting impression. The show comes fresh from a four-month stint at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. This was the first ever exhibition of Carr’s work in England and it won rave reviews. No wonder.
Emily Carr is a heroine of the first order, a painter of remarkable sensitivity, who brought Post-Impressionist Modernism to the unique west coast Canadian scene. She was also a prolific writer who, late in life, won a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Strong, independent, self-willed and determined, she was a feminist, an environmentalist, and a friend of indigenous First Nations long before these terms were invented.
Born in 1871, her personal story is compelling. Although her parents died when she was in her teens, she still managed to leave her home in Victoria and travel to San Francisco, London and later to Paris to learn the latest trends in contemporary art. She returned to the B.C. coast and, between 1899 and 1912, made many trips up Vancouver Island and then further north up the B.C. coast, to Haida Gwaii (then called the Queen Charlotte Islands), into the interior east of Prince Rupert, and then up the Alaskan panhandle. A recently discovered 1907 diary of her trip to Alaska, with her sister, is full of delightful stories and colourful drawings, one of the highlights of the show. On her travels, she fell in love with the art and culture of the indigenous coastal people, and with the haunting wilderness of the coastal forests. She had found her sense of place which then inspired her entire career.
Making a living from her art was difficult and for 15 years she was preoccupied with running a boarding house and breeding dogs. Then, in 1927, the Director of the National Art Gallery, Eric Brown, asked her to put some of her paintings in a show on Canadian West Coast Art. She came east for the show and met painters from the Group of Seven. Their love of nature matched her own, and their approach to their painting accorded with her perspective. She became a close friend of Lawren Harris who encouraged her, at 56 years of age, to return to painting full-time. She did so with a passion. She made more trips up the coast, and painted while living in a trailer in the woods, with only her menagerie of animals to keep her company. Her vision and style changed to express the spirituality she found in nature. Many of her most searing, most important and, later, most valuable, paintings date from this period.
When health issues (a couple of heart attacks and a stroke) curtailed her painting, she turned her attention to her writing. In just a few years, she published three books: Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), and The House of all Sorts (1944). After her death in 1945, there were four others, including Growing Pains (1946).
I was thrilled by the show, the power of her paintings, the beauty of the First Nations art, and the example of her story. Now where is that book I got in high school? I need to read it. The show runs to August 9th. Don’t miss it.
Photographs courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, with thanks.