Today, I was dropping off books at the Emily Carr Library here in Victoria. I arrived to find cake and coffee: a celebration of the birthday of the library’s namesake!
And so, today’s blog is a wee bit about Emily Carr (13 Dec 1871 – 2 March 1945) and her work.
One of the first blogs I wrote (click here to read) mentioned Emily Carr and how I just didn’t get what people saw in her art. Why was she so famous? I mean, all she painted was the greens and browns of dark forests and she seemed pretty enamored with totem poles. What was so amazing about that??
My view has changed and particularly so after a visit to the semi-permanent Emily Carr exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. I discovered not only that her oeuvre covered far more than forests and totems, but when she painted those, they went far beyond my stereotypical idea of her work.
Things I learnt: her most well-known work wasn’t produced until Carr was in her 50s and 60s; she went to France in 1910-11 where she came under the influence of the post-impressionists, particularly the bright colour of the fauves; that she began writing books when she was in her late 50s; that her life and art were transformed by her meeting members of the Group of Seven in 1927 and seeing their passion for the Canadian landscape produced in bold, colourful paintings.
I have yet to read any of her books, but while at the library I borrowed The Book of Small to consume over the holidays.
So let’s have a look at a random selection of work that appealed to me at the exhibition. (All the photos were taken at the exhibition and I apologize for the rather poor quality. I was going to use available images from the Gallery website but found them a bit flat. Use this link to see those versions.)
When I saw this painting I was gobsmacked! Being familiar only with Carr’s later work, it came as a complete surprise. Such a traditional still life, far away from dark forests and totem poles!
It was probably painted around the time Carr attended the California School of Design in San Francisco where she learnt the rudiments of drawing and painting from the staff who had been trained in Europe. The experience certainly must have opened her world coming from the rather rural Victoria. The painting, a favourite of Carr’s sister Elizabeth, was given in gratitude by Carr to the Sisters of St Ann for their care of Lizzie in her illness and dying days from breast cancer. The nuns recently donated it to the Gallery.
In the summer before her 40th birthday, Carr set off for France. There, studying with Henry Phelan Gibb and Frances Hodgkins, and influenced by the work of the Fauves, she began to use brighter colours and a more expressive brushstroke as seen in the two paintings above.
In the summer of 1912, Carr, accompanied by her beloved dog Billie, travelled to a number of remote (and sometimes abandoned) First Nation villages in northern British Columbia including some along the Skeena River and on Haida Gwaii. The influence of her studies in France is evident in the bold colour and direct observation.
“I came home from France stronger in body, in thinking, and in work…My seeing had broadened.”
In 1927, Carr was invited by the director of the National Gallery of Canada to participate in an exhibition entitled, Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art – Native and Modern. Along with First Nation artists, Carr’s work also was in the company of many of the Group of Seven. Her meeting with them, particularly with Lawren Harris, changed her life as an artist. Harris encouraged her to dig deeper. Her work became more abstract and more about feelings than a strict recording of fact. From here on, she found inspiration in the forests, skies and seas of the local landscape. Her vision was finally given free rein.
“Dear trees, we don’t stop half enough to love and admire them.” ~ Emily Carr, 22 May 1934
In all of these later works, I have the feeling of a reality beyond what we see visually, one that I might even say was spiritual. The landscape moves in a way not seen in our everyday version of reality. It’s as if nature and all her parts are revealing each spirit that dwells within.
“I think I have gone further this year, have lifted a little, I see things a little more as a whole, a little more complete. I am always watching for fear of getting feeble and passe in my work. I don’t want to trickle out. I want to pour till the pail is empty, the last bit going out in a gush, not drops.” ~ Emily Carr, 1936
What a woman, what an artist!! Much to learn from her.
Are you familiar with the work of Emily Carr? What are some of your favourite paintings? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Carr, both her life and her art. Please leave a comment. The easiest way is to reply to me and I will attach it to the blog post.
Thanks for joining me on my artistic journey 🙂
PS. Happy Friday the 13th!!