A Not-So-Quiet Burst of Attention to Emily Carr
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 5, 2004
West Coast painter Emily Carr’s Quiet fetched $975,000 (or $1.12 million with the buyer’s premium added) at a Vancouver art auction recently. This price broke records and placed her in the same league as her friend and founder of the Group of Seven Lawren Harris, whose Winter in the Northern Woods sold for $1.5 million in Toronto a few days later.
Back in 1927, Harris might have anticipated this serendipitous denouement of an East-meets-West story that for once ends happily. “You are one of us!” he told Carr after seeing the National Gallery’s West Coast show that exhibited 26 of her oil paintings, pottery and rugs.
That remark and the relationship that followed gave the fifty seven year old Carr a new lease on her artistic life – a life during which she had been unaware that the Group of Seven or even Ottawa’s National Gallery existed.
Born in Victoria in 1871, Emily Carr was the second youngest in a family of six recently arrived from England. Barely fifteen years old when both parents died, the impatient, rebellious and contrary Emily soon decided to escape stuffy Victoria society by becoming an artist.
Between 1889 and 1912, the life she chose would take her along the Pacific coast to Alaska where her strong feelings for Indians and their art took root and into California where she learned about design and portraiture. Twice she would cross the Atlantic – to England and then to France to learn about painting.
It was a difficult life with little financial or other encouragement. In 1913, the eccentric artist who smoked cigarettes and had a pet monkey built a four suite apartment hoping the rent would support her. The plan didn’t work and for the next fifteen years, instead of painting, she grew fruit, bred dogs, made pottery and ran a ladies’ boarding house.
In 1927, everything changed. The National Gallery discovered Emily and exhibited her work. She also met Lawren Harris.
Recognition was now underway though financial worries persisted into her sixties. More importantly, she resumed a prolific life of painting and started writing - producing five mostly autobiographical books, one of which won the Governor General’s award in 1941. The pace she set for herself at this time continued until her death in 1945.
Biographer Doris Shadbolt, chronicles how Carr’s canvases with their themes of a unique and vanishing Indian culture and powerful coastal nature are the result of an artist committed to her work before all else. California, England and France – all were chapters in the development of technique and craft that Carr would adapt and apply to subjects few had attempted. At once luminous and dank, thrusting, swirling and infused with sublimated sexuality, her paintings of totem poles and forests, skies and beaches evoke Europe’s post impressionists and cubists, hints of Van Gogh and Munch and the mystic philosophies of Wordsworth and Whitman.
But it was the impact of the Group of Seven that ultimately emboldened and helped fulfill her potential as a mature artist. On first seeing their paintings Carr enthused how “If I could pray, if I knew where to find a god to pray to, I would pray…”
Shadbolt writes the Group of Seven was pivotal in three ways: “the first was psychological, a question of morale; the second and perhaps most important was ideological – (their) goals and purposes … set Carr in the direction she had been waiting to find… The third was … their paintings … inspiring models of conviction and strength.”
“Carr is in the strongest sense regional…” says Shadbolt. “She gave form to a Pacific mythos … But by virtue of her artistry and imaginative enlargement of her themes, the best of her creations are universal.”
For the intuitive and unintellectual Emily, it was sufficient that her art, like that of the Group of Seven, be ‘Canadian’. “This,” she said, “is my country. What I want to express is here and I love it. Amen!”
Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.