Forget the absurd reference to Frieda Kahlo, Emily Carr has zero in common with Kahlo with the exception of female physique. Just as last week in another review Carr was described as “Canada’s answer to Van Gogh,” I find it pathetic that the “old world”, Europe and the UK that is, needs to see Carr’s work in relation to other greats from “anywhere but CANADA”… the colonial attitudes are getting more than tiresome. Our country has been independent for over 140 years. That makes it technically older than Great Britain, Germany, Russia etc… all the countries of Europe who have drawn and redrawn their borders so many times.
Carr was, and continues to be, revolutionary, and more than overlooked. Here we have a woman working ALONE in isolation, in the twee city of Victoria, hiding place of “colonials”, a place where they could go and with a tuned-up English accent, remake themselves. And Emily, stood out as a giant amongst them and for this she received much scorn and mockery for being an artist who happened to be a woman. An artist, who did this all alone without a cadre of acolytes, male and female, or a spouse – why what man would be secure enough and brave enough to stand quietly in the shadow of a giant?
Carr was “headstrong … a tomboy, who preferred animals to people”… well no kidding. Her eldest sister, the head of the family, refused to give her the money she needed for art training in San Francisco, then in Paris and London. Finally she convinced the head of the family trust to fund her studies. But not after a fight. She studied abroad, but eventually had to return to the artistic isolation of twee Victoria, BC (it still has a twee faux-English flavour, including people who are born there but who speak with a slight English accent for heaven’s sake), where she opened a rooming house in order to fund her painting. From this experience came some really well-written books – she was as good a writer, though not as experimental, as she was a painter.
Carr eventually organized a show of her own paintings in Vancouver. Again, what male artist of her calibre would have to do this all alone? Her subject matter, beyond our great forests, and oceans, was that of the First Nations People, whom she recognized were the artisans of the “new world”, akin to what the ‘ancient Briton’s relics are to the English.” Recognizing that in the official government policy of what we now know as cultural genocide, that is, assimilation, Carr warned that the art, architecture and ritual of the First Nations in ‘only a few more years … they will be gone forever into silent nothingness.’ I have often thought about this, and how woefully inadequate the conquerers were at recognizing the 10,000 year cultural heritage of the First Nations has been. How wantonly sacred spaces, ancient weirs, the great forests filled with the symbols (petroglyphs e.g.), traces every bit as worthy as a Sutton Hoo, are destroyed, continues to be one of our country’s greatest shames… just a month ago petroglyphs that were 5 or 6 centuries old were blown up for a road building project in Nanaimo BC. Carr would have been appalled. I am appalled.
After her art show in Vancouver, Carr was totally demoralized by reviews which denigrated her work, especially the paintings of First Nations ‘relics’, decidedly unsuitable for the times in which the First Nations were not even second class citizens. (Shame #2 – it wasn’t until 1963 that First Nations peoples were given the democratic vote… tell that to the First Nations, the Inuit, veterans of the First and Second World War will you??? I guess we Metis were “white” enough to be allowed to vote). Carr packed up her paint brushes for 15 years and never touched a canvas with paint. Instead, as the article states, she became an eccentric, ‘crazy old lady’ with a band of creatures, including her grumpy monkey.
The story ends, if not happily, but better. Lawren Harris, a First World War artist btw, invited Carr to exhibit with him and come to Toronto (the CENTRE OF THE WORLD don’t ya know!). She came, she conquered, she returned to B.C. for the final go at paint, and the rest is, as they say, modernist art history.
Carr was a miracle in our midst. It’s taken a century for the “old world” to find her. Why? Oh let’s not go there shall we… (gender politics, colonialism, collective guilt for the maltreatment of the First Nations from basically an old world model of governance…). As the article states, hers ‘is not so much a macho story of discovery and conquest, but a haunting and occasionally erotic reminder of mystery.’ Indeed, her forests are gorgeous renderings of the sensuality of the living, breathing west coast. Anyone who has walked through the great old growth forest (that which hasn’t been utterly destroyed, in a manner that looks, quite frankly, like la bataille de la Somme), with the Great Pacific battering the coastline nearby, knows the utter potential, the fecundity of the greenness, the scent of the sweet duff, the rotted cedar and fir, the nursery trees, the sheltering of the ferns, a forest bed in which to lie etc. etc…
I celebrate Carr and always have. She was so brave, a visionary who foresaw the environmental cataclysm, and the cultural genocide. The First Nations, by the way, named her Klee Wyck which means “Laughing One”… so what did the First Nations see in her that her own people clearly could not?
Margaret Atwood writes, “Her canvases are so green: she takes you into the middle of the forest.” Atwood is absolutely wrong in this, but then, one can’t blame her, she has never lived in British Columbia for any length of time I believe, and has not grown up in the rain forest as some of us have been lucky to do. No, Carr’s canvases do not ‘take you into the middle of the forest’, they actually transfer one into being of the forest, being one with the forest and landscape. It wasn’t until I was ‘exiled’ in southern Ontario, flat, treeless, doing my Master degree, that upon seeing Carr’s paintings at the McMichael gallery that I finally understood Carr. I looked at this,http://www.kinderart.com/arthistory/emilycarrstrees.jpg , and I finally understood, with tears running down my face. As with all great artists, she takes us home.