The Life of Emily Carr

Learn all about Emily Carr, the artist featured in Susan Vreeland's novel The Forest Lover.
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The Life of Emily Carr

Learn all about Emily Carr, the artist featured in Susan Vreeland's novel The Forest Lover.

The Reputation

In paint and words, Emily Carr casts a tall shadow. As a woman interpreting British Columbia in a bold and inimitable way, bringing modern art to the Americas, she has become a national Canada.

In Canada, she has been the subject of countless scholarly articles, several biographies, at least five art historical books, four documentary films, a handful of plays, a musical, a ballet, an opera, poetry, songs, and even a puppet show. Her work commands an entire floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, she is represented in all of Canada's major art museums and in the Tate Gallery in London, and a recent auction sold her 1912 canvas, War Canoes, Alert Bay, for over one million. Her stories of life among the indigenous peoples of British Columbia are frequently used in Canadian schools.

Despite all of these ways Canadians might know her, Emily Carr's reputation has hardly crossed the southern Canadian border. Why hasn't it, when fertile comparisons mount up to support a broader recognition? Her totem poles in forests are icons of her beloved Northwest as surely as Georgia O'Keeffe's cow skulls in deserts are icons of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest. In the swirling skies and swaying trees of Emily Carr's later paintings, we see the strokes of Vincent van Gogh. Carr's conviction that all living creatures, human and otherwise, are eternal expressions of the one Life echoes Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was her constant companion. The natural, wild places in British Columbia informed her painting the same as the natural, wild places in the Lake District of England shaped William Wordsworth's poetry.

She's been called Canada's Georgia O'Keeffe and the WASP Frida Kahlo, The Different Victorian, The Rebel Artist. First Nations people in British Columbia have named her Klee Wyck, Laughing One. I hope, through this novel, to add one more name to the others: Hailat, Person with Spirit Power in Her Hands.

The Work

Of the three grandes dames of modern painting in the Americas, Emily Carr, George O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo, Carr was the earliest, having her first solo exhibitions in 1912 and 1913, while O'Keeffe had hers in 1917, and Kahlo, who didn't paint her first oil until 1926, exhibited in her first group show in 1931. In near isolation, Carr produced an enormous body of work that is evocative and startling even today.

Beginning in 1906 with her return from London where women were taught only watercolor, the appropriately delicate medium for lady painters, The Forest Lover narrates her discovery of her artistic source in her home province of British Columbia, and her subsequent confrontation with the male art bastion in Paris where gender inequity and her inability to speak French made it nearly impossible to get helpful critiques. From the France of 1910-11, when the art world was bursting into modernism, she brought home a variety of new ways of seeing and painting. The years following show her independently developing her own deeply personal style, based on intuitive sensitivity rather than academic technique. She exhibited her work in Vancouver and Victoria at a time when the majority culture was intent on subduing indigenous cultures and the Northwest forests, and on criticizing those who attempted anything unconventional in the arts, as she did.

A perusal of her paintings from 1908 to the late 1930's in Paintings and Passages on this site will show the development of her style from the conventional to the utterly original, from detailed and decorative renderings of totem poles true to their ethnographic integrity, to haunting, personally expressive images of simplified, sculptural totem shapes integrated into the natural landscape. After nine trips to paint thirty First Nations villages in twenty-three years, she slowly turned away from Native iconographic motifs, not out of diminished love for them but out of her own increasing difficulty to get to the sites where the totems stood. Roughly concurrent with this, she began to feel an intensified desire to express her own deep feelings for the British Columbia landscape. It was then that she began to paint pure forest. The degree to which the strong totemic shapes of poles influenced Carr is seen not only in her early paintings of the poles themselves, but in her later paintings of the solid, impenetrable forest which she shows us as if it had been carved in paint as surely as her Native counterpart carved in cedar.

According to art historian Sharyn Udall, curator of the exhibition, Carr, O'Keeffe, and Kahlo: Places of Their Own, "Emily Carr experienced an ecstatic identification with the spirit of nature, particularly as she found it in British Columbia... To speak of Emily Carr's trees is to seize on the central subject of her work, both as metaphor and form." Smithsonian calls her paintings of trees, "emotional explosions."

Carr went through periods of painterly Post-Impressionism, to Fauve color handling, then flirted with Cubism, and matured as an expressionistic interpreter of her beloved Northwest. As she sought to paint the spirit of a thing instead of just a thing, her paintings became either more abstract, or mysterious and other-worldly. In her last body of work, she arrived at energetic sweeps of unpeopled landscape, impassioned seascapes, dramatic skyscapes vibrating with movement. She never lost the longing to be worthy of her subject. In the final analysis, the journey brought her recognition as a major force in North American art of the twentieth century.

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