Emily Carr, a Canadian artist of stunning originality and strength
July 21, 2018 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Emily Carr (December 13, 1871 – March 2, 1945) was a Canadian artist and writer, documenting life and locations in and around British Columbia before others. She began painting in an era when women didn’t, at an age when most people shouldn’t, traveling to remote locations that few professional adventurers chose to go. Not only did she adopt the painting techniques of modernism, when such ideas were considered dangerous, Carr chronicled the extraordinary art and culture of native peoples, who were invisible to the dominant culture, as described in the documentary Winds of Heaven (documentary trailer).

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia review – Canada’s very own Van Gogh (Laura Cumming for The Guardian)
If ever there was a heroine of true grit in the history of art it was Emily Carr, a painter of such singular strength and beauty it is almost impossible to believe that the revelatory exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is her first in this country. Carr’s landscapes of the high skies, wild bays and deep forests of the Pacific west coast of Canada – whispering with sound, radiant with inner movement and mysterious light – are as exhilarating as the places they represent.

Carr found a new way of painting that is unlike any other, in which the vision is radically joyful and modern, the paint as fine yet potent as the breezy air around her. Although she is often compared with her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe – two single-minded women out in all weathers, painting the great outdoors – at her best Carr has more in common with her fellow outsider Vincent van Gogh.
Though her first love was painting, later in her life, Carr turned to writing. Her first book, Klee Wyck, was published in 1941. It was a hit with both critics and the public, won the prestigious Governor Generals' Award and has been in print ever since. She followed it up the next year with The Book of Small, and published The House of All Sorts in 1944.

You can read those three books on Project Gutenberg Australia:
  • The Book of Small, a collection of thirty-six word sketches in which Emily Carr relates anecdotes about her life as a young girl in the frontier town of Victoria. She notes: "There were a great many things that I only half understood, such as saloons and the Royal Family and the Chain Gang." The young Emily, who gave herself the nickname "Small," was an intense, observant and sensitive yet rebellious child, who often got into scrapes because of her frankness or innocence. The vividly told stories reveal an awareness for the comedy -- and pathos -- of people and situations. The also offer an intimate look into childhood in a pioneer society in Victorian Times.
  • Klee Wyck, a work of autobiographical non-fiction by Emily Carr, prepared by Gardner Buchanan, Andrew Sly and Stephen Davies. Though primarily a painter, Carr first gained recognition as a writer. Her first book, published in 1941, was titled Klee Wyck ("Laughing One"), in honour of the name that the Native people of the west coast gave her as an intrepid young woman. Emily Carr wrote these twenty-one word sketches after visiting and living with Native people, painting their totem poles and villages, many of them in wild and remote areas. She tells her stories with beauty, pathos and a vivid awareness of the comedy of people and situations. The original edition this book was 21 chapters long, but the commonly available copy of the book, sometimes called the educational edition, has a chapter excised. It has been re-inserted as chapter 17.
  • The House of All Sorts, an autobiographical work of non-fiction. Before winning recognition for her painting and writing, Emily Carr built a small apartment building with four suites that she hoped would earn her a living. But things turned out worse than expected, and in her forties, the gifted artist found herself shoveling coal and cleaning up other people's messes. This book is a collection of forty-one stories of those hard-working days and the parade of tenants -- young couples, widows, sad bachelors and rent evaders. Carr is at her most rueful, but filled with energy and an inextinguishable hope. She also ran a small kennel and bred bobtails to help out her meagre income. In an additional twenty-five stories, Carr lovingly describes the mutual bonds of affection and companionship between her and her dogs.
Emily Carr had heart troubles, marked by her first heart attack in 1937. Her last heart attack was fatal, and she died on March 2, 1945, shortly before she was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia. Three additional books of hers were published posthumously: Growing Pains (1946), Pause, The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966).

With an architecture described as both “San Francisco Victorian” and “English Gingerbread,” all agree that the heritage Emily Carr House is on the must-see list of attractions in Victoria, and one of now a handful of institutions and locations named for Carr.
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 


Although she is often compared with her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe – two single-minded women out in all weathers, painting the great outdoors – at her best Carr has more in common with her fellow outsider Vincent van Gogh.

Well, sure, but she’s really much more of piece with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

Which is to say, there are at least nine Canadian Van Goghs.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:51 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]


What a wonderful post - thank you. She’s been one of my favorites for years.
posted by rtha at 6:16 PM on July 21


I live just up the street from her former residence on Government Street in James Bay, and I'm friends with the caretaker (the whole place is a museum).

A few years ago I traveled to Kispiox, just north of Old Hazelton in northwestern BC, to take a look at some totem poles Carr painted once upon a time.

There's a statue of Emily Carr just down the street from my house that sort of bugs me. The statue still portrays her as a bit of an eccentric (there's a floppy hat and a pet monkey), and does nothing to reflect that Carr was an outcast in Victoria in her day, and would have (should have) been a member of the Group of 7 (she was better than any of them) if she hadn't been a woman.
posted by JamesBay at 6:31 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


I did a very small archaeological project in the garden of Emily Carr House once: the usual historical ephemera but also, I found the butt end of a tube of paint.

I've never seen the connection between her work and the Group of Seven, to be honest - or van Gogh for that matter. I think she has a lot more in common in energy and brushwork with the Fauves, especially Maurice Vlaminck.
posted by Rumple at 6:49 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Well, sure, but she’s really much more of piece with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

The really remarkable things about Carr is that she was so isolated from the modern art movement that she came up with her own style on her own -- most artists are influenced and supported by other contemporary artists. She was in B.C., in conservative Victoria, and didn't know that the Group of Seven even existed until both they and she were well-established. She was stunned when she first saw their paintings. She had thought she was the only painter like her, that other painters were all classical painters doing still lifes and realistic portraiture and the like.
posted by orange swan at 7:26 PM on July 21 [7 favorites]


I think the Group of Seven comparisons come from the longstanding need by the eastern Canadian establishment to fit her into their parochial, and overwhelmingly male, worldview. In point of fact, Emily Carr exhibited in Paris in 1911 alongside Matisse, Picasso, and Braque and they are perhaps a more reasonable point of contemporary connection.
"Le Paysage also holds an important place in Canadian art history as one of two Carr works accepted to the 1911 Salon d'Automne at Paris' historic Grand Palais. The Salon served as the epicenter of artistic innovation in the early 20th century, bearing witness to the birth of Fauvism and, later, Cubism. The fact that Carr, then a virtually unknown female artist from Canada's West Coast, was showcased alongside the likes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque makes the painting all the more remarkable. "What this painting represents to me is that, even before Carr started her terribly important work on the B.C. coast, if she had stayed living in France, she had the potential of being considered an important artist of the day. It wasn't just what she depicted on the B.C. coast, it was that she had the ability to capture the artistic sentiment of the times," Audain says."
[Which is to say, she was probably more isolated from eastern Canada than from Europe - she had studied in London as well as Brittany, of course.]
posted by Rumple at 7:36 PM on July 21 [9 favorites]


This is what I love about Metafilter... I've been a fan of Emily Carr for twenty years. Back then the internet exposed me to her paintings and writings; now it's pretty cool to read about other peoples' reactions to her work.
posted by Agave at 8:42 PM on July 21


There's a statue of Emily Carr just down the street from my house

Ah, so that's who she is. We stay nearby when we visit Victoria. I'll have to visit the residence next time I'm there.

Emily Carr MeFi meetup, anyone?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:42 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]


If we do an Emily Carr meetup I'm sure we could do something at EC house itself.
posted by JamesBay at 8:58 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


And I suddenly realize it's been way too long since I've listened to Canadian singer/songwriter Veda Hille's 1998 album "Here is a picture (Songs for E Carr)." Thanks for the reminder about both of these artists' work!
posted by jburka at 9:19 PM on July 21 [1 favorite]


[Which is to say, she was probably more isolated from eastern Canada than from Europe -

that is so west coast
posted by philip-random at 10:13 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]


I attended a few Ontario public schools and I'm pretty sure each of them had a reproduction of "Rushing Sea of Undergrowth" in a hallway somewhere near the offices. It's certainly feels like part of my Canadian identity.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:36 PM on July 21


Whether or not she’s actually adjacent to the group of seven she’ll always be mentioned with them simply by the dint of her Canadianess and her time period.

I was the the McMichael gallery a little while ago and somewhere they mentioned that she would smoke while thinning her paints with gasoline and that it’s a small miracle she produced so many paintings the way she did on a lot of levels.
posted by GuyZero at 2:57 AM on July 22 [3 favorites]


Many years ago when I kept a journal much more regularly, one of the books I bought and read along with the obligatory Anais Nin was the Emily Carr Omnibus which contains her journals "Hundreds and Thousands" as well as her other published works. Reading her thoughts is really wonderful, especially as my mother and my two sisters were/are artists and so I was already around women who painted. Highly recommended.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 3:50 AM on July 22


I think the Group of Seven comparisons come from the longstanding need by the eastern Canadian establishment to fit her into their parochial, and overwhelmingly male, worldview. In point of fact, Emily Carr exhibited in Paris in 1911 alongside Matisse, Picasso, and Braque and they are perhaps a more reasonable point of contemporary connection.

Ah, yes, those famously all-female painters Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, only known to the most worldly among us.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:17 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


I was wandering through a book store some years ago & spotted a book by Susan Vreeland. There are not a lot a Vreelands in the US, so I bought it just because we shared the same last name. The Forest Lover is a well-written semi-factionalized biography of Carr & I fell in love with her work. My wife, being an art major of course knew about the Group of Seven, who are pretty much all fantastic, but the way they embraced Carr & brought her to the world’s attention was news to both of us, so we got to enjoy discovering her painting together.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:07 AM on July 22


A few years ago I was in Winnipeg and I saw a number of her paintings along with the Group of Seven. They're wonderful.
posted by Fizz at 7:11 AM on July 22


Ah, yes, those famously all-female painters Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, only known to the most worldly among us.

Point taken, although I think Rumple made a good point, too. For various reasons "Canadian culture" (at least the dominant culture) has always been parochial and bland, and has been dominated by just a few voices. Better to think of Carr as someone with global stature.
posted by JamesBay at 10:31 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Is there an Internet law akin to Godwin's Law where any discussion of Canadian identity or cultural output descends into complaining about how bland it is, how few voices there are or random Tallest Poppy comments? I suggest calling it the Law of Paul Gross.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:04 PM on July 22 [6 favorites]


I'm from Vancouver, and one of the huge wins for me -- a girl who wanted to be an artist -- was growing up in a town where the Most Important Artist was a woman. If I ever got tired of hearing that women 'can't be great artists', a trip to the VAG dispelled the voices instantly.

I think she, like the Group of Seven, was heavily influenced by late 19th century and early 20th century European painting -- but she's also heavily influenced by First Nations art and culture. She wasn't ignorant or uninfluenced by what was going on in the European scene, but she was also deeply isolated.

Something that's not mentioned in the OP is one of my favorite things, her trailer
The Elephant. Oh, and her sketches and photos of her various beasties including Woo the monkey
posted by jrochest at 12:31 PM on July 22


Ah, yes, those famously all-female painters Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, only known to the most worldly among us.

I may have conflated a couple of things, the Guardian article compares her to Georgia O'Keefe for no apparent reason than they are both women who painted outdoors sometime. The point is, merely being Canadian does not mean her artistic comparables are also Canadian. She doesn't need to be crammed into a parochial school of central Canadian painting rather than globally influential movements that she was actually a part of. It's just lazy, especially since her own biography and influences are so different than theirs.
posted by Rumple at 12:32 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


I don't know my art history that well, but her situation sounds comparable to somebody like Patti Smith who very much did it her way at a time (the 1970s) when there just weren't that many women at all in the rock and roll game. And perhaps more to the point -- she (Ms. Smith) did it without playing at all to sex bomb bimbo expectations of the time. She was one of the guys.
posted by philip-random at 1:00 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


Is there an Internet law akin to Godwin's Law where any discussion of Canadian identity or cultural output descends into complaining about how bland it is

Not sure if you missed it, but I did say "the dominant culture." Canada is a small country, and the dominant culture so far (mostly white, Anglo) has pretensions of greatness it does not deserve. Peggy Atwood comes to mind.

Sometimes criticizing the Canadian cultural industry provokes the same reactions as criticizing a beloved television show one is meant to binge-watch.
posted by JamesBay at 4:14 PM on July 22


Perhaps you missed my point. I'm not debating the point of what "dominant" means. My point is that rarely does a conversation go by on Metafilter (and elsewhere) where Canadians do not engage in the aforementioned Law of Paul Gross. I wasn't calling you out but calling attention to the attitude in general. I apologise if I was singling you out as that wasn't the intent.

Canadians, by and large, dismiss their own pretty consistently regardless of whether it is deserved or not. Whether it's the most crass television show or a work of fine art, the establishment or the underground... it never seems to matter. Only when there is an international success or the work manages to catch the zeitgeist do we care and even then that's a brief period before we eventually succumb to our national characteristic of hacking at the tallest poppy. It seems to be a historical quality of our character as I think it gets reflected in the way we've treated some of our artists, which is to say pretty poorly.

As someone involved in fostering creatives, it is a quality I find unhelpful. It's hard enough to be a creative in a big empty country with a 500 kilogram gorilla breathing down our necks but its doubly hard when we have to please that country with art when they are predisposed to distrust and hate it. We don't need to be uncritical boosters of Canadian cultural production but it'd be nice if we could see some greater generosity of spirit when it comes to our creative community. Otherwise those voices you'd rather hear go elsewhere or don't bother or disappear leading to more erosion of funding, the same established voices and ultimately further ossification. I think it reflects poorly on us as a nation.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:05 PM on July 22 [5 favorites]


I suggest calling it the Law of Paul Gross

Not sure if you're praising or denigrating the talent and ridiculous good looks of Mr. Gross.

posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:15 PM on July 22


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