ART

Landscapes of the spirit

GEOFFREY JAMES July 25 1988
ART

Landscapes of the spirit

GEOFFREY JAMES July 25 1988

Landscapes of the spirit

ART

In April, 1930, the Vancouver Island painter Emily Carr took a train to New York City to explore the current art scene. She was 58 at the time, an isolated figure even in her native Victoria, where she supported herself as a landlady.

Lawren Harris, the patrician Toronto-based leader of the Group of Seven, had told her whom to see and where to go.

Carr made the most of her twoweek stay. She saw Cubist work by Picasso and Georges Braque, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Nude Descending a Staircase, a painting that had scandalized Americans 18 years earlier. She visited the notable art collector and writer Katherine Dreier, with whom, as Carr recalled in her memoirs, she played the role of the ignorant provincial. Inquiring about one of the paintings that the collector owned, the artist asked, “Please, Miss Dreier, why is that carrot stuck through the eye?” Most important, Carr visited An American Place, the gallery run by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the tireless promoter of the vanguard art of the time. There she met Georgia O’Keeffe, then 43. The New York City visit clearly had an impact on Carr, as The Expressionist Landscape, a touring exhibition on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Aug. 21, demonstrates. “Those modern exhibitions were a wonderment beyond my comprehension,” she later recalled, “but they were certainly not beyond my interest.”

Almost 60 years afterward, curator Ruth Stevens Appelhof of the Birmingham Museum of Art £:

in Alabama concludes in her catalogue for the show that the New York City visit was indeed critical in Carr’s artistic development.

She writes that the mature, 1930s paintings of Carr, who died in 1945, “are almost inconceivable without the influ-

enees she encountered in New York.” Such art-historical speculation is hard to prove or disprove. In The Expressionist Landscape, Carr can be seen alongside 16 other artists, all of whom, with the exception of Harris, were American. And it seems probable that Carr managed to see the work of most

of the others while in New York City.

For Canadians, one of the interesting aspects of the show is to see both Carr and Harris in what at first glance might be considered unexpected company. Harris, after all, was the unofficial leader of the Group of Seven, Canada’s first indigenous landscape school. Carr, although older than any of the members, was the group’s unofficial protégé. But curator Appelhof has chosen to present the two artists as part of a larger North American movement that was deeply influenced by German Expressionism-more specifically by that Munich version of it known as Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider. The term was coined by the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky and the German Franz Marc. Kandinsky later wrote: “Franz Marc loved horses and I loved riders, and we both loved blue. It was as simple as that.” The two artists advocated not so much a style as an approach to art and life.

Kandinsky, author of the enormously influential 1911 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, like Carr, Harris and many artists in the show, was a Theosophist—searching for a single transcendental religion that would unite all others. To Theosophists, God dwelt everywhere in nature, visible to anyone with sufficient sensitivity. Indeed, for many artists of that generation, believing was seeing.

Certainly, Kandinsky’s influence bears on many of the works in The Expressionist Landscape. It is evident in the murky mysticism that characterizes quite a number of the landscapes in the show, as well as in occasional efforts to move toward abstraction, /-which Kandinsky saw as the true vehicle of the spiritual. Sometimes, as in Arthur Dove’s Fog Horns (1929), Kandinsky’s ideas are almost audible. The painting is based on four delicately layered blobs of grey that successfully convey Kandinsky’s notion of synesthesia — the transference of reactions from one sense to the other. But The Expressionist Landscape is in fact rife with all sorts of Eu-

ropean influences far beyond that of The Blue Rider. The overwhelming impression of the show is that of painters attempting to digest the various “isms” that were crossing the Atlantic. The best found their own voices. The worst are unredeemably provincial.

Georgia O’Keeffe, who died in 1986, was one who established her own style early on, although throughout her career she continued to veer between the figurative and the abstract. In the Vancouver show, the most powerful of her works is one painted in the Gaspé in 1932, in which a wooden cross set against the sea almost fills the canvas. More typical are several New Mexico landscapes, all curves and puckered folds, which suggest, with an almost startling literalness, that the land is a woman’s body. O’Keeffe staunchly denied such blatant connotations throughout her life. New Yorker Alice Neel, who died four years ago at 84, is less of a celebrity, although she had a solid reputation as a portrait painter. She is represented by two wonderfully manic seascapes, which are as fine as anything in the exhibition.

However, it is a problem of The Expressionist Landscape that it includes both minor painters and minor works by some of the more important American artists of the period. John Marin and Marsden Hartley, both members of the Stieglitz circle, are not represented at their best. Marin, a vigorous watercolorist, at times seems to be bobbing along in the wake of Cézanne—he is better than the show suggests—and Hartley is not represented by the rich work he created in Nova Scotia in the mid-1930s.

Fortunately, the problem of selection does not affect either Harris or Carr, who are represented by some of their best work. Harris alone among the Group of Seven experimented with abstraction—turning mountains into pyramids and clouds into lozenges, but always treating the pictorial space of the painting quite conventionally. What saves those experiments is a splendid ethereal light, of which he was a master. Carr’s development was slow and tenacious, but her later paintings have a wonderful rhythmic energy, full of swirling shapes that recall Van Gogh. In the company of The Expressionist Landscape, she is certainly not the country mouse she might have appeared to be in New York City in 1930. Like the best work of her peers, hers is not an art of easy achievement but one of working through various influences to find a voice. It is all the more admirable for that.

-GEOFFREY JAMES