This is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Emily Carr (1871-1945), according to the curators one of Canada’s most beloved and famous artists although, like most Brits, I’d never heard of her. Carr never married and had no significant relationships, instead dedicating her life to recording the vanishing monuments of the native peoples and the wild landscape of her native British Columbia. It is a fascinating show, the latest in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s long track record of small but wonderfully inspiring exhibitions.
Carr was the fifth daughter of a merchant who was able to fund her art studies. Her parents died when she was young, and she had to struggle against her elder sisters’ wishes that she find a good husband and settle down – instead she was determined to pursue her artistic ambitions, travelling to San Francisco to study art in the 1890s. Later in the decade and through into the early 1900s she was in London studying painting, with a spell at St Ives too. So she was starting her career right at the birth of Modern Art, as the Fauves were exploring more violent colour contrasts, as Picasso and Braque were about to invent cubism, as the pace of artistic experimentation accelerated in the years just before the Great War.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition wing has six rooms, so Carr’s career is divided into six sections. For some artists this six-fold division is used to highlight different subjects or media, but for Carr it really brings out how strikingly different her style and approach was at different points of her career.
The first room shows many of her early tree and forest paintings. She had a special affinity for trees, especially the tall, muscular cedar trees which characterise British Columbia. They are like twisting columns among the sombre dark-green foliage. A classic example here is Tree Trunk (1931). Among the studies of trees is a famous image, Indian Church (1929).
Reproductions don’t convey how intense, claustrophobic and brooding this painting is. The commentary explains there was just such a church in the woods but Carr brought the forest much closer than it was in real life, bunched the gravestones closer up against the building, and made the church striking white against the threatening greens of the encroaching forest. It symbolises her white, European ancestry and artistic heritage, set against the fathomless depth and power of wild, unEuropean nature.
The commentary made the telling point that though she did hundreds of tree paintings, there are no leaves. Being familiar with the botanical drawings of Marianne North among others, or the feathery leaf technique of Thomas Gainsborough, I realise this was a very deliberate choice. Her foliage comes in blocks. It is similar in feel to the cubist or vorticist feel for blocks, cubes, rectangles, cones. Nature, for Carr, is forces and directions of energy, rather than fragile detail.
In the 1860s a wave of epidemics, mostly smallpox, swept through the native people of British Columbia, decimating them. Entire villages were wiped out and their buildings, artefacts and striking totem poles left to rot. This was the strange abandoned landscape Carr grew up into in the 1890s. Once she had discovered her first native villages she became obsessed with recording them before they decayed forever, reclaimed by the forest. The result was hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings of totem poles and the other statuary of the natives.
All of these have, I imagine, considerable historical and anthropological importance, but almost all of them are striking and hauntingly beautiful.
In this, one of the most famous images, note the use of Cezanne-like inch-long rectangles of paint, the blocky effect, visible all over, but particularly in the clouds and especially in the grass.
and many many more images of totems. Two things stick out for me. 1. These are ruins. No humans anywhere. The same accusation could be made as was made against the English Lake District poets and painters – Nature is a refuge from the messiness of human life, human relationships, above all from the world of work, earning the money to buy the food to stay alive. 2. Like all ruins, they come with a ready-made emotional appeal. (cf Tate’s exhibition on Ruin Lust). The gaunt accuracy of her works contrasts with the actual crumbling decay, poignantly.
Late 20s modernism
Then she packed it in. Sometime during the Great War Carr stopped painting in oil or watercolour and took to other things, dog breeding, according to the commentary, which includes photographs of her looking very happy surrounded by her animals. She had got no recognition, sold nothing, made no money. Decided to call it a day.
Some 15 years later, in 1927, a gallery out East decided to have an exhibition about paintings of the Canadian landscape and someone suggested Carr. She sent nearly 30 works and found herself famous! She was invited to attend the exhibition and met the Group of Seven young painters who’d come together to forge a native Canadian style. She found herself praised as a forebear of their attempts and, amid the adulation and praise, was encouraged to take up her brush again.
What she produced from 1927 through the mid-1930s is strikingly different from the earlier work. It is much more modernist, even Vorticist in feel, the subject matter (nature, trees, forest, totem poles – no people) more chunky, stripped down to create solid blocks of thick colour.
Just as you’re getting your head around Carr’s progression from late-Victorian realist watercolour through Fauvism and cubism influences to the blocky 1930s style – you walk into the 5th room to discover a dozen or more paintings in a completely different style. The subject is still nature, forest, trees, but she has invented a new technique, based on using petrol to soften the paint once it is on the canvas and stir and spread it around in spools and wisps of colour. This experimental new technique creates a light, flowing style utterly unlike the heavy dark blocks of colour from earlier in the 1930s.
Note the emphasis on the play of light and the effect of wind, light and wind on slender trees – completely different from the heavy, static, claustrophobic images of the forest which the exhibition opened with. Many of them have the expressionist swirling of paint around the main subject reminiscent of Edvard Munch.
- Scorned as timber, beloved of the sky – according to the commentary this painting approaches ‘iconic status’ in Canada
The final room shows yet another change in style: her last paintings, done in the late 1930s/early 1940s, are of light over the sea, beaches, the coast. According to the catalofue, ‘euphoric sky paintings, rhythmic light-filled beach scenes and clear-cut landscapes’. It would be nice to end on a positive note, but for me these don’t work. The technique they all adopt of thick lines of paint – presumably an attempt to catch the infinitely subtle play of light on water, or sunlight between clouds – fail.
Far more interesting are the couple of large paintings of decorated canoes drawn up by the sea or lake shore. The first is an accurate but rather insipid watercolour from 1908. Next to it hang two large oil paintings from 1912, just 4 years later, but a world away. Carr has been exposed to the Fauves and taken on board their experiments with colour: using colour not in relation to the ‘real world’ but in relation to the other colours in the palette and being used in the painting: so that shadows become purple or green, hillsides can be red or yellow (lessons about colour conveyed so brilliantly in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition about Making Colour). Gauguin in Canada.
Native Indian artefacts
In two of the rooms, in addition to the paintings there are display cases containing 30 or so native Indian artefacts, carved objects and tools made by the peoples whose ruined villages and totems Carr recorded so dedicatedly. They included: helmet with bear, gull mask, raven ladle, octopus spoon, sheep horn feast dish, frog mask, soul catcher, shaman’s amulet, dance wand, oyster catcher rattle.
The audio commentary had many of them explained by James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver; there was one particularly long piece where he described the myths surrounding the important figure of the raven in native mythology.
The aim, I think, is to give a sense of the Indian culture which she was painting and I certainly thought they had a tremendous depth and elegance. The historical and cultural authenticity of the native artefacts, as well as the resonance of mythical imagination behind the objects which depicted faces of animals, shamans and totems, are like gateways into a really strange and alien universe of belief and practice.
They give you a sense of Carr’s startling ambition to try and match and capture their weird insight. In her day she was a bold and imaginative pioneer, heroic in her determination to seek out the ruined villages, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest white settlement, to stay there day after day, often on her own, trying to catch the secrets of these haunting objects by the equally mysterious process of covering thin canvas surfaces with strokes of coloured oil.
Towards the end of her life she described her adventures among the native peoples and their art in a best-selling book, Klee Wyck.
This is a great show about a fascinating, strong and uncompromising artist. It’s been extended to mid-March. Go see.
- From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia @ Dulwich Picture Gallery
- DPG press release about Carr
- Emily Carr Wikipedia article
- Totem poles of British Columbia
- Carr alongside contemporaries
- Guardian review
- Biography on the Vancouver Art Gallery website
- Klee Wyck on Amazon
Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions
- The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (October 2015)
- Ravilious (April 2015)
- Emily Carr (February 2015)
- Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 (June 2014)
- David Hockney prints (March 2014)
- An American in London (January 2014)
- A Crisis of Brilliance (September 2013)