From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

Peter Morrell is enthralled by both the works and words of Canada’s greatest female artist

Look at the earth crowded with growth, new and old bursting from their strong roots hidden in the silent, live ground, each seed according to its own kind… each one knowing what to do, each one demanding its own rights on the earth… So, artist, you too from the deeps of your soul… let your roots creep forth, gaining strength.

Emily Carr

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay) 1912
Oil on cardboard, 65 x 95.5 cm
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes

In 2011 the Dulwich Picture Gallery held an exhibition, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven. The group’s objective was to capture the raw beauty of the Canadian wilderness, they sketched in the remote Algonquin Provincial Park during the summer before returning to Toronto to make full sized works. The paintings captured the attention of the British art loving public and it became the fourth most popular exhibition at the gallery in its 200 year history.

So I was excited to hear that a substantial collection of works by Emily Carr, one of Canada’s best loved artists, were being brought to Dulwich. I had caught glimpses of a handful of her paintings in the galleries of Vancouver and Toronto but never had a chance to see the full breadth of her repertoire.

Carr was born in British Columbia to wealthy British parents in 1871 and was encouraged from an early age in artistic activities. But it wasn’t until after her parent’s deaths, when she was twenty, that she started to pursue a career as a painter. She studied in both the UK and Europe before returning to British Columbia. Her particular interests were recording the artefacts of the First Nations people and the natural environment they lived in. By early in the 20th century the culture of the indigenous people, who lived along the Pacific north-west coast of Canada, was being threatened and Carr’s desire was to make a permanent record of their buildings, canoes, totem poles and statuary.

Emily Carr was not only an artist but a philosopher who wrote many observations on life and nature. So the exhibition at Dulwich displays Carr’s quotes to amplify the effect of her works.

The exhibition starts with paintings that depict trees and totems existing together in perfect harmony. The images are very stylised, almost symbolic, with deep, earthy tones. In the first gallery there is also an interesting display of religious and ceremonial objects used by the First Nations people.

Carr did not use either a consistent style or medium during her career. This is graphically demonstrated in the second galley where we see the bold, almost impressionist painting of three totems (Tanoo 1913) next to her delicately illustrated diaries.

The next gallery showing works painted in the early 1930s demonstrate her drift further towards abstraction. She had met Lawren Harris, one of the Group of Seven, in 1927, he had a major influence on her work and was following a similar abstract path.

Continuing the journey, in 1939 she produced Sunshine and Tumult, a composition of tall trees and a stormy sky. Great swirls of colour confirm why she has been compared in the past to Vincent Van Gogh. Apart from the ever present trees, her work feels looser and far less stylised as if she feels more comfortable with herself

In 1939 she also painted a self portrait, aged 67. We see a rather stern, lonely figure which is a fairly accurate representation of her character. Early in her career, when she was working as an art tutor at the “Ladies Art Club” in Vancouver, students boycotted her lesson due to her smoking and cursing them in class. The overall impression is that this monkey owning, caravan dwelling genius communed more easily with nature than with humans.

The last gallery in the exhibition contains one of her most powerful works, Indian War Canoe at Alert Bay completed in 1912. The colour and form of the canoe fit naturally into the landscape and there is, of course, a tree in the background.

This is an excellent, well curated exhibition that tells Carr’s life story and should not be missed. Also part of the experience is visiting the Dulwich Picture Galley. Designed by Sir John Soane it is a gem, offering an intimate setting in which to view the paintings.

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

1 November 2014 – 8 March 2015
Open10am – 5pm Tuesday – Friday 11am – 5pm at Weekends
Price £11 Adult, £10 Senior Citizens, £6 Concessions, FREE for Children and Members

Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road
SE21 7AD