Emily Carr: Forest for the trees

I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, previously put off by the (perceived) long distance from Central London. The draw was ‘From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia’, the first UK exhibition dedicated to the Canadian artist. The exhibition was recommended to us by Mr BB’s mother who lives in British Columbia, Canada. She also got me Emily Carr’s exhibition catalogue from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria as a birthday gift. Mr BB, born in British Columbia, came along.

“If there is no movement in the painting, then it is dead paint”. Emily Carr grew up near British Columbia’s coastal rainforest and saw a vibrant life form in the giant trees. She depicted them with wave-like movements in their swirls of the branches and the lines of their trunks. I could feel the influence of Cezanne’s little paint touches in her technique. At the same time, she also painted tree leaves as an ensemble (without distinguishing the leaves), which reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe. According to the exhibition, Emily Carr saw O’Keeffe’s works in New York in 1930.

Carr later went on a mission to record the totem poles made by the indigenous population in the West Coast of Canada, where many died in epidemics during the 19th century. This brings Gauguin and his time in Tahiti to mind, although Carr was looking closer to home. And while I detected a Gauguin influence on Carr, it not from his Tahiti period, rather his Pont-Aven period in Brittany. Carr had spent time in Brittany and might have seen works of Gauguin.

The totem watercolours of this era recorded these precious and decaying artistic treasures, but perhaps mesmerised by their beauty Emily Carr couldn’t express her own artistic vision fully. I thought her paintings better demonstrated her own style, even though she was criticised for bringing too many modernist touches to the totems. Carr almost left her artistic practice but her career took off when the Director of the National Gallery of Canada in Ontario called her to exhibit her works in a group show ‘Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern’. She met then with the Group of Seven, a group of Canadian landscape painters. This (long overdue) recognition reignited her artistic career.

The Dulwich exhibition includes Carr’s late experiments with oil and petrol, resulting in light, long, and more vivid touches of paint, recalling Munch. It was clear from the exhibition that Emily Carr was a lonely character but happy in the woods. My senses were relaxed by immersion in her tree paintings; I felt like I was watching a slow motion video of a forest complete with the sounds of bugs and trees branches rustling in the wind. From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia runs until 15 March 2015.IMG_1147.JPG
Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

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