Thursday, 28 December 2017

Emily Carr

I have just finished reading The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland which is a fictionalised account of the life of Emily Carr. Inspired by the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, she was one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist style. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from indigenous themes to landscapes, and forest scenes in particular. She did not receive widespread recognition for her work until late in her life. Carr was also a writer and one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia.

Fiercely independent and an adventurer, and despite the very real dangers and difficulties of a woman traveling alone into the wilderness, Carr pursued her passion to express in her art a pure British Columbia, including its native settlements and totem sculptures. She was driven to go to hostile villages in the hope of seeing pure indigenous art and celebrating it in her paintings.

After years of art school in England and San Francisco Carr returned to Canada, the place of her birth. She began to paint the land and scenes of indigenous culture and in the process, found herself connecting ever more deeply with its people. She stayed in a village near Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Her interest in indigenous life was reinforced by a trip to Alaska nine years later.

Determined to further her knowledge of new artistic trends she travelled to Paris in search if 'modern art' and was awestruck by the breaking of boundaries by the then new painters, such as Matisse and Picasso. There, she was encouraged to use non-naturalistic colours influenced by the example of the Fauve painters and this brought new freshness and vigour to Carr's handling of paint. She stayed in Paris for a year and then returned to British Columbia with a new way of seeing, and started using colour with more determination than ever in order to break her own new ground.

She went on a six-week journey that took her far north, both inland and out to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The primary goal of her work was to document the villages and totems of First Nations people, which Carr believed were destined to disappear. She executed enough studies and finished paintings to hold a one-person exhibition of 200 works in Indian motifs, the first show of its kind in Vancouver.  Not surprisingly, unused to indigenous themes, the public ridiculed her efforts, and she was cast into a state of depression, loneliness and near poverty.

During the next 15 years, she did little painting but instead run a boarding house.

Over time her work came to the attention of several influential and supportive people including Marius Barbeau, a prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. She was invited to exhibit her work at the National Gallery as part of an exhibition on West Coast indigenous art. Recognition of her work steadily grew and her work was exhibited in London, Paris, Washington DC and Amsterdam.

Distrusting institutional religion she became influenced by Theosophic thought and began to form a new vision of God as nature. She continued painting until she got ill and then, unable to travel, she switched to writing.

Note: The text in italics is copied from The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland.

Wood Interior, 1909

Skidegate, 1912

... 'Potlatches, grandes fetes lasting days. One chief invites other villages to witness the raising of a pole. He gives away hundreds of things. Dried salmon. Hudson's Bay blankets, basins, tools, English dishes. Cloth, oil, sacks of grain, sugar. Even sometimes a sewing machine or a canoe... There are proud speeches, feasting and drinking and drumming. Feathered bodies dancing, stepping lightly on the earth. Moving in a trance... Wild things happen... 

Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912

'... Trunks of cedars carved into animals to represent their clan... or to tell history... Imagine them stripped of branches all the way to the top. Creatures with eyes and beaks and teeth and wings stacked on top of each other staring at you out of the forest...Some of the villages have been abandoned but the poles are still there. You can come upon them suddenly or you can hear the wind moaning - whooh, whooh - like a ghost, and then you know there's one nearby, and so you creep around like a fox.

- I want to see them.

- Not possible, not for a woman alone'.

Skidgate, 1912

' - I went to Hitats'uu alone... For a whole week. I loved it. 

- What's to love in a mean little row of bighouses?

- The whole place. And the people. They are what they are. No pretending. I loved how they all live together. How they make what they need. Fine things. Cedar mats, baskets, hammocks... Everything is full of feeling... They live by tradition and harmony with nature too'.

The Crying Totem, 1928

'On the Eagle clan side of Tanu she found Crying Totem. His strong, prominent nose, and his lips only a straight groove conveyed great dignity. It was the eyes that were startling. Eyeballs hung down to his waist on wooden sinews stretched .... No, they weren't sinews, but rivers of tears pouring out his closed eye sockets. 

This Tanu father cried with wrenching formality for his hapless sons. Whatever it meant to the Haida, to her, this Eagle father who cried for the smallpox dead at Raven House in Chumshewa. He cied for the Tsimshian dead of measles in the Skeena. He cried for every father's son sent to war. He cried for Sophie's children. He cried for Haaydzis and Muldo and Tuuns, some Gitksan father's sons, for Harold, and for all the beaten, disfigured, lost. His tears shut no one out.

A heaviness descended on Emily as she began to paint the weeping figure. His streaming tears bleached blue-gray as death, with an advancing army of dark, coned trees in the background, backlit by portentous clouds pressing down to earth, weighted with tears yet unshed - all of it seemed an omen...'

Queen Charlotte Islands Totem, 1028

' - So tell me. Your mission.

- To preserve the totem poles in painting. That art is vanishing. In another generation, it might, all be gone. There needs to be a record of them, in their own village settings, before they rot back into the forest, or before the missionaries burn them down in some righteous Christian frenzy'.

Totem Mother, 1928

'...A man or woman, possibly a mother. The broad face had a shoulder-to-shoulder smile, the mouth not turned up, just stretched wide. The mother, if it was a mother, held a child facing forward, showing him with pride. The baby's face had the same wide smile, as though feeling the love that surrounded him. 

To render motherhood in wood, the carver had exaggerated the mouth, the source of lullaby and love, into a smile that pushed up the cheeks above it. In reality a smile couldn't stretch the width of a face, but the exaggeration dramatized the figure's joy. The hands resting lightly on top of the child's head and cupping him from below were out of proportion, smaller than the width of her smile, as if to suggest gentleness. All that she'd seen in France was here in Kitwanood. Distortion for expression - she'd almost lost sight of it.

Think of everything as shapes, she told herself. The heads of mother and child were squarish, the mother's mouth a round-ended rectangle, her thighs elongated ovals. Now make those shapes express something personal. She thought of Sophie's smile when she presented her twins. Such a smile could illumine a house, could turn a world. She stretched the smile even wider. She enlarged the mother's right shoulder and left forearm, made them clubshaped and strong to enclose the child. She wasn't an anthropologist. She was an artist'.

The Raven, 1928-29

Three Totems, 1929-30

'[Why I'm doing them...] Once I thought it was to make a record. Now I think it's to be close to some spirit I don't understand - yet. To honour the people who do. And to express my love for the West.'

Zunoqua, 1930

Silhouette No. 2, 1930-31

Forest, 1931-33

Forest, British Columbia, 1931-32

Big Raven, 1931

Zunoque of the Cat Village, 1931

Red Cedar, 1931

'Partly lost to her surroundings, she singled out a cedar, wide at the base, narrowing as it grew. If there was any kind of portrait worth doing, it would be the portrait of a tree. But a portrait had to convey character. The channels in this cedar's raw umber trunk all stretched upward, reaching toward light. It was more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that had brought her this far: reaching. Not just the tree, but the idea was her subject. The things in a painting were only bits of visible evidence of a still, small voice, whispering the truth.

As she began to paint, she saw rhythm in the tree's repeated forms, in the upward reach of the trunk furrows, its bare hanging withes reaching down, its laden boughs tangled with those of other trees. In one sweep she united the branches into a mantle of cedars. Her swinging arm became a swoop of greenery, boughs from adjacent trees breathing into each other, supporting each other, all one.'

Wood Interior, 1932-35

Pemberton Meadows, 1933

A Rushing Sea of Undergrowth, 1935

Forsaken, 1937

Above the Trees, 1939

Untitled, 1938-39

Cedar, 1942

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