CARR’S POWERFUL CANVASES HAVE WON BELATED RECOGNITION
A ‘TERRIFIC’ PAINTER
CARR’S POWERFUL CANVASES HAVE WON BELATED RECOGNITION
You have got to meet success halfway. I wanted it to come all the way, so we never shook hands.
For the past two decades, success has not only met Emily Carr, it has enthusiastically embraced her. For most of her life, Carr, who died in 1945 at 73, sought solitude and only hinted that public recognition would be welcome. She lived in self-imposed isolation in and around her birthplace of Victoria, and she was considered a regional artist at best—dismissed as a curious exotic at worst. But with a rekindling of Canadian nationalism following the country’s Centennial in 1967, Carr and her art enjoyed a belated celebration that shows no signs of diminishing. Part of her emergence can be attributed to the rise of feminism and a growing awareness of native culture, one of her prime subjects. But Ann Morrison, a Vancouver art historian who did her master’s thesis on Carr, declares: “The underlying fact is that she was a really terrific painter.”
In fact, Carr is now widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s finest painters ever. Her work—in styles ranging from realistic to emotionally expressive—features faithful renderings of West Coast Indian totems and powerful canvases depicting the rain forests and skies. While her art was overshadowed by the success of the Group of Seven in the late 1920s and 1930s, it now commands the same attention—and prices. Ian Thom, curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which houses nearly 200 of her works and regularly displays 50, says that “Carr paintings sell in the $50,000 realm, and often for considerably higher than that.” At an auction in Toronto in 1987, Carr’s In a Circle went for $297,000.
The life and work of Carr are remarkable at any level, particularly because of the social strictures that she fought against. Carr was one of nine children of her English immigrant parents, Richard and Emily. Three boys died in infancy, and a brother, Richard, at 23, of tuberculosis. Her father operated a successful wholesale grocery and liquor business in Victoria. Stem and authoritarian, he raised Emily and her four sisters very much in the strict and proper Victorian manner of the time. Her mother died in 1886, when Emily was 14, and two years later her father died, as well. As much to escape her overbearing older sister, Edith, who had taken charge of the family, as to pursue her interest in drawing, Emily made a fateful decision:
in 1890, she enrolled in the California School of Design in San Francisco.
In the Victorian age, young ladies from well-off families were expected to learn something about art as part of their finishing. But as Morrison says, to actually become an artist was “to start on a slippery slope down.” Breaking totally from what was fully expected of her—marriage and motherhood—Carr followed her heart, mind and gift. That journey took her to the Westminster School of Art in London and the Académie Colarossi in Paris—but always back to Victoria, where she confronted, and affronted, Victorian sensibilities. She smoked, kept a pet monkey,
lived and travelled on her own and rode horses—not sidesaddle, but like a man. Carr wrote that she had not become “an English miss with nice ways. I was more me than ever, just pure me.”
From sketching trips to remote West Coast Indian villages, Carr produced numerous canvases depicting totem poles. In 1927, because of her subject matter and the fact that she worked at the edge of the country, Carr was included in a National Gallery exhibit of regional and native art in Ottawa. During a side trip to Toronto, she met with some members of the Group of Seven, most importantly Lawren Harris. The acknowledged leader of the group said to Carr: “You are one of us.” Explains Thom: “Harris was a major influence, first in that he convinced her that what she was doing was good.” As well, adds Thom, Harris “dramatically changed her whole approach to three-dimensional space—prior to her meeting Harris, her paintings were essentially flat and did not have a sense of volume.” What followed over the last 15 years of her life was an intensely creative outpouring that produced some of her most impressive works, including Big Raven (1931) and Cedar (1942). Carr also wrote three autobiographical books during those years, and her collection of short stories, Klee Wyck (1941), won a Governor General’s Award. But while painting remained her first love, she was widely regarded as just a regional artist and, by the 1940s, her accomplishments were overshadowed by the emergence of abstract expressionism. As a result, it was left to the next generation to rediscover her. Says Morrison: “Now, her importance as an artist can be assessed without any of the categorizing that went on before.” A singular personality and artist, Emily Carr can be categorized as a Canadian treasure.
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