1st November 2014 – 15th March 2015. Dulwich Picture Gallery
When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it some while before I touched the brush, feeling my way into it. Asking myself these questions, what attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it, what is its core, the thing you are trying to express?
Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Whenever I arrive in a new place I look for artists of all disciplines, historic and contemporary, to really come to grips with the ground I’m standing on. In 1995 I had just arrived in British Columbia on a Canadian working holiday and exploring downtown, found my way to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Noting an artist’s name in my guidebook whose work I had never seen and a floor devoted to her on the gallery map, I ventured upstairs. The moment the lift doors opened I was confronted by a face I have never forgotten, an enlarged detail from Harold Mortimer Lamb’s 1939 photographic portrait of Emily Carr in Her Studio. What struck me immediately was the artist’s powerful, resolute stare; an aged face framed by swirling brushwork, Sunshine and Tumult, the still eye of a storm raging against the intrusion of the camera. In defiance of time and gender this was a woman unapologetically direct in vision and action, arching eyebrows and steadfast, penetrating gaze forever fixed on the photographer and confronting the soul of the viewer. As I entered the first room I felt elated at the sight of Forest, British Columbia (1931-1932, Oil on Canvas), astounded by the depth and energy of Carr’s paintings and amazed that a degree in Art History had not introduced me to her work. It was a discovery that shaped my consequent journeys through Canada; to Carr’s home and final resting place in Victoria, the Dallas Road cliffs, Beacon Hill Park and Esquimalt where she walked and sketched outdoors, to Ucluelet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Northern BC, Alert Bay (Cormorant Island), Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) and Alaska .I sought out her work in collections across Canada, her writings in second hand bookstores; Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946) The Heart of a Peacock (1953),Pause, An Emily Carr Sketchbook(1953), Hundreds and Thousands, The Journals of an Artist (1966) and spent countless hours in museums, libraries and archives trying to understand the extraordinary artist behind that formidable gaze.
I think what I also felt, but did not begin to understand until I had experienced the land, sea and forest of British Columbia for myself, was Carr’s profound affinity with Nature and her indigenous understanding of landscape. Contemporary scholars have been critical of Carr’s appropriation of Aboriginal Art and Design in her early work, reading it as part of a condescending colonial narrative of vanishing cultures. But to frame her entire output in this way is to miss something vital which was alive in her work from the beginning. All her life she strove, often at great personal cost, to understand- both as an artist and a human being in spite of her Victorian/ British colonial upbringing. There is respect and reverence in her mature work, in creating a visual language of her own, which shares a kinship with indigenous understanding of nature, environment and spirituality as a living tradition of seeing / being in the landscape. As she wrote in Klee Wyck in contemplation of Zunoqua, the wild woman of the woods; “The power that I felt was not in the thing itself but in some tremendous force behind it that the carver believed in.” This life force which Carr explored through Christianity, Theosophy and Pacific North West Coast Aboriginal beliefs is the defining characteristic and ultimate trajectory of her Art.
For Carr the forest was the Feminine personified; aspects of self, untamed, sometimes threatening, endlessly fertile and Divine. The affirmation of her palette and paint handling in this context is undeniable and although the myth of Carr looms large, her work is also a means of addressing the innate complexity of identity and belonging, particularly in a post-colonial New World environment. Throughout her life she was considered an eccentric outsider, a woman who unconventionally chose not to marry and have children, who travelled to aboriginal communities throughout the Pacific North West coast from the early 1900’s and to San Francisco, Britain and France to gain an Art education. Until aligned with the all-male Group of Seven in Eastern Canada, Carr remained unappreciated as an artist until later life, emerging as a unique voice from the West, a Modernist way ahead of her time. Today she is embraced, though not without controversy, as a national treasure and the current exhibition of her work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery will no doubt be revelatory to many as the first dedicated exhibition of her work in the UK.
The curatorial vision of the exhibition moves consciously from “darkness to light”; deep forest to sky, revealing the evolution of Carr’s thinking in relation to her Art and the world around her. Juxtaposed with Carr’s drawings and paintings are First Nations sacred objects; Art of ritual and everyday life, which affirm a way of seeing and being in the landscape in terms of reverence, respect , understanding in the use of natural materials and continuity of ancient beliefs and traditions. Many of the objects on display are associated with the Potlatch; a North West Coast ceremonial gathering of families to announce births, give names, inherit rights and privileges, conduct marriages and mourn the dead. Dances, feasting and the distribution of gifts such as blankets, carved cedar boxes, food, coppers and canoes maintained relationships between clans, established rank in society and were part of an economy of giving.The Potlatch was banned by the Canadian government from 1885-1951, throughout Carr’s lifetime (1871-1945) and within the display of First Nations Art there is a tension between the intention of appreciation; the beauty and exquisite craftsmanship of this work, its complex social/spiritual/cultural meanings and the knowledge that many objects like these were confiscated by government agents or stolen, becoming part of museum collections on foreign shores, including our own.
Emily Carr sketching on the beach at Tanu, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), 1912. Image F-00254, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
A 19th century Haida Raven Grease Bowl (Wood. 10.5x 25.5 x 13cm. Horniman Museum, London.) is functional, mysterious and exquisite ,with its beautifully seamless flow of carved ovoid forms and transformative masks within the body of a bird associated with all Creation. Seeing Carr’s 1931 painting Tree Trunk (Oil on Canvas) nearby immediately communicates something beyond the pictorial; a depth of purple, curtained ultramarine and vivid green; the red cedar like a human figure becoming part of the hallowed earth in bands of fluid colour and light. Like all of Carr’s mature work it conceals and reveals the great mysteries of life and being. She is not a landscape painter of trees or scenic views but grapples with creative forces within and without, going out to meet them in the forest with her “whole self”. When you look into the interior of a decaying cedar, see the erosion of wood by the ocean with its distinctive pattern of grain or the towering strength of Old Growth trees that have outlasted many human generations, there is a sense of connection with being small in relation to the world and with a reality beyond the physical. The same grain of resilient life, delineated in ovoid form in the heart of a cedar, can be seen in the abstracted designs of master Haida Artists such as Bill Reid, Charles Edenshaw and Robert Davidson, drawn directly and holistically from their environment.
A Soul Catcher; (Northern Northwest Coast, 19th Century .Bone, string and abalone shell.15cms. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) a shamanic object intended to hold and protect the soul of an ill person until it could be returned to the body, feels like an apt symbol of the restorative aspect of human creativity ever present in Carr’s work. Her engagement with the coastal forest of British Columbia was a creative act of going deep within, beyond what she could see with her eyes, being still and prepared to listen, restoring her disassociated soul to her body in a world of strict Presbyterianism , Victorian constraint and advancing industrialisation. Her descriptions of the forest and sea in her writings and her visual language present a human being open to the sensuous and experiential. Her writings on Art, Nature and her paintings are rapturous, heartfelt and revelatory. Works like (Forest 1935, Oil on canvas) capture reverberations of colour and light in swathes of movement, the vertical upright of the tree at the centre of the composition; a shimmering path into the woods and ever upwards, a representation of her lifelong quest for light. In Hundreds and Thousands, the artist’s journals from 1927 to 1941, she wrote;
It seems as if these shimmering seas can scarcely bear a hand’s touch. That which moves across the water is scarcely a happening, hardly even as solid a thing as thought, for you can follow a thought. It’s more like a breath, involuntary and alive, coming and going, always there but impossible to hold onto. Oh! I want to get to that thing. It can’t be done with hands of flesh and pigments. Only the spirit can touch this. So it is with all of her paintings, Carr is an artist striving resolutely towards “God” with every mark.
The First Nations objects on display create an awareness of the spirit of place Carr tried to capture in her work, highlighting shamanic practice not as a religion but a way of seeing the world. Raven Rattle, Northern Northwest Coast, early 19th Century (Maple wood, paint, animal skin, stone and animal sinew. 14.2 x 33.2 cm. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.) is a particularly beautiful example, utilising natural materials of the Spirit. Displayed in a glass cabinet there is a distance between Western Art Historical, Ethnological or Anthropological readings of this work and its actual function as part of a living creative tradition. These are objects made, held and used by human hands, with a fluidity of design moving easily between the physical and the metaphysical, rather than Art objects separated from everyday life. The economic and spiritual wealth of the communities that made them is part of their Craft. These were qualities Carr recognised and found wanting in her own Victorian community. In her later work she recognised that the appropriation of “Indian” imagery ran counter to what she needed to cultivate in her Art and in herself. Although she perceived a kinship with Aboriginal ways of seeing, contact with the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris validated what she always believed and strove for in her Art- realisation of the Divine (or metaphysical) in Nature and within herself. “You are one of us” declared Harris. Finally in 1927 following the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art- Native and Modern at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, the “little old lady on the edge of nowhere” found her tribe, but continued to set herself apart.
Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, 76.2 x 56.7 cm , 1980.034.001 , Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Her painterly treatment of totem poles was criticised in its day for not being documentary enough and is still criticised today for its stylisation of First Nations Art. However Carr’s greatest achievement as an artist is in being uniquely herself, developing her own expressive language, grappling, as all great artists do, with the Art of her chosen discipline and what it is to be human.
The juxtaposition of Pacific Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art and Carr’s work in the exhibition is a great source of inspiration, the source of the artist beginning to explore what was most essential to her in life and Art. Carr acknowledges her struggles to come to terms with the life force of the forest and her upbringing of colonial prejudice in her autobiography Growing Pains. She acknowledges the “inner intensity” and spirituality of “Indian Art”, together with the deficiency of her own culture “schooled to see outsides only”.
Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man’s understanding. I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were Old World heredity and ancestry as well as the Canadian environment. The new West called me, but my Old World heredity, the flavour of my upbringing, pulled me back. I had been schooled to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.
The Indian caught first at the inner intensity of his subject, worked outward to the surfaces. His spiritual conception he buried deep in the wood he was about to carve. Then—chip! Chip! His crude tools released the symbols that were to clothe his thought—no sham, no mannerism. The lean, neat Indian hands carved what the Indian mind comprehended.
Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas, Overall: 108.6 x 68.9 cm (42 3/4 x 27 1/8 in.) ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970, 69/118. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Although the attribution of value is clothed in colonial condescension, referring to “crude tools” and “neat Indian hands”, Carr also reveals the contradictions and complexities of being Canadian born, of the “new West” and also the product of “Old World hereditary”. The Victoria Carr grew up in was distinctly and proudly British, yet the sheer force of her personality demanded a deeper state of connection with her beloved West. Carr’s painting Indian Church (1929, Oil on canvas) which positions the stark white rectangular architecture against the lush green growth of the forest presents this essential conflict. The cold geometric confinement of missionary zeal and advancing “civilization” is aligned with the crosses in the graveyard whilst the layered forest, towering over the church is overwhelmingly vibrant, fecund and spiritually charged. Contrary to the Canadian government’s policies of assimilation at the time, the dynamic “vortices of natural form” are distinctly and resiliently alive in comparison to the invading architecture. Carr also makes the connection between the life force of the forest and the evolution her painting/way of seeing in terms of movement:
Movement is the essence of being. When a thing stands still and says ‘finished’ it dies. There isn’t such a thing as completion in this world, that would mean stop. Painting is striving to express life. If there is no movement in the painting then it is dead paint.
Emily Carr, Tree (spiralling upward), 1932 – 1933, oil on paper, 87.5 x 58.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.63, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Works like Tree Spiralling Upward (1932-33, Oil on paper) are the visual expression of this imperative, a spontaneous and joyous response to the Divine in nature, a quality also seen in the poetry of Walt Whitman and English Romantic poets that Carr loved. The looser paint handling and vibrant palette of her mature style, influenced by exposure to Post Impressionism and Fauvism in Paris, the work of Kandinsky, Picasso and Braque in New York, together with the post-Cubist work of American artist Mark Tobey and the integrity of abstraction in First Nations Art, give Carr’s paintings a distinctive edge. In Europe she studied with Henry Gibb, the New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins and the Scottish Colourist J.D.Fergusson, who she said encouraged his students to see “rhythm in nature”. Another Untitled drawing– formalised tree forms with totemic details (1929-1930, Charcoal on paper), with its pure strength of line and overlapping organic forms, conveys a felt sense of depth, dynamism and protection Carr found in the forest. Carr’s interest in Asian Art, with its calligraphic brushwork capturing the essential spirit of subjects in nature, is aligned with her technique of using oils on paper diluted with gasoline to respond immediately to the energy of earth, trees, sea and sky when working in the field. A quality also found in the assured, confident marks of her ink and charcoal drawings and in the formal design of her compositions.
Carr never fully embraced abstraction; I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume, and I wanted to hear her throb. In works like Kitwancool Totems (1928, Oil on canvas) and Silhouette No2 (1930-31, Oil on canvas) the sensuous curves of human figures are made solid as the earth or seen in stark silhouette against the glow of twilight, a God-like hand outstretched over the water, canoe and all of life’s journeys.
Within Carr’s Art and writings there is a hidden beauty, seen only in the light reflected by forest, sea and sky. In many ways this feels like her core self; the unconscious, all she kept hidden beneath an obstinate, formidable exterior, in the crafting of her own fictions and in female sexuality never fully expressed in outer life. In BC Forest (1930, Oil on paper), one of the most beautiful works in the exhibition, the palette of black and greys tonally unite rocks and layers of canopy in a vision of deep stillness and contemplation. The light is within and beyond, a feint glow of perceptive Truth at the heart of the composition; an exposed mark of paper whose light spills into the viewer’s foreground.
It is impossible not to be moved by the image or the human hand/ mind that made it. Like all of Carr’s best works we reimagine the world and ourselves in relation to it in the act of seeing. She inspires connection, understanding and heightened awareness of Self and of the World.
Everything is green, everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours that you had not noticed come out timidly or boldly.
Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind…each knowing what to do, each demanding its own right on earth.
Emily Carr, Self-portrait, 1938-1939, Oil on wove paper, mounted on plywood, 85.5 x 57.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Gift of Peter Bronfman, 1990, Photo © NGC. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Many Liken Carr to one of her most celebrated paintings; Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935, Oil on canvas.), a singular line of lone pine standing tall and reaching toward the heavens, fragile and enduringly resilient. Throughout her life she was acutely aware of her isolation;
I don’t fit anywhere, so I’m out of everything and I ache and ache. I don’t fit in the family and I don’t fit in the church and I don’t fit in my own house as a landlady. It’s dreadful-like a game of musical chairs. I’m always out, never get a seat in time; the music always stops first.
Fortunately for us, Carr had the strength and conviction to resoundingly create her own music. In the final room of the exhibition in works like Sky (1935-1936, Oil on Paper) and Strait of Juan de Fuca (1936, Oil on paper) we see the sea becoming sky, a sense of communion with the infinite and in the vibration of every mark an ever expanding universe.
Emily Carr at Vancouver Art Gallery;