What is modern Canadian art? That open question is surprisingly personal. In 2000, I began a BA in Art History at the University of Victoria. I took classes on Canadian art and architecture alongside modules on Islamic design, Mesoamerican art, film studies, and critical theory. My first serious job was as an architectural guide and curatorial assistant in Victoria for the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Victoria’s architecture taught me how to be an architectural historian, and my first major research project focused on a group of nuns, the Sisters of St Ann, and their art education programme on colonial Vancouver Island. Much of my current research still focuses on the Gothic Revival and on nuns and the arts in the nineteenth century.
Back in Canada my first serious academic paper, in the Art History department’s annual symposium, focused on Alexandra Biriukova, the Russian modernist architect who came to Canada in 1929 after studying with Arnoldo Foschini in Rome. In Toronto Biriukova met the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, and worked on designs for his sleek white-walled flat-roofed modern house. This was completed in 1931. Later that year, Biriukova gave up on architecture – there were no further opportunities or invitations in Toronto. Was Modernism too much for conservative Canadians? Was the Depression too crippling? Was being a Russian woman in Canada too vast a chasm of difference to overcome? I was 19 when I posed these questions, and it was this architectural project that really brought me strongly into contact with the Group of Seven and with Emily Carr. Like all BC kids, I grew up surrounded by Harris, Thomson, Carr, and the rest. I know their paintings like I know Beatles lyrics – easy to envision, easy to voice, embedded at a mysteriously intuitive level. That does not make their work easy art, and there is a wealth of scholarship and indeed even a kind of discomfiting reverence that attends the Group of Seven in galleries and on bookshelves. This is true of Carr, too, particularly on the west coast.
From November 2014 until March 2015, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is home to a major Emily Carr exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea – it’s the first significant show of Carr’s work in British history. The symposium on 31 October at the gallery demonstrated what a wide and sometimes problematic array of viewpoints circulate in relation to her work. I learned that Carr enthusiasts are so vocal and prevalent that they have a nickname: Cardiacs. Over and over again, I heard scholars and curators (not all, but some at least) refer to her as ‘Emily’. Would any art historian – or indeed member of the public in an exhibition – refer to Paul Gauguin as ‘Paul’? Roger Fry as ‘Roger’? Unlikely. There is a strange and perhaps even irresponsible intimacy that Carr’s work and its historical treatment seems to invite, even amongst her most scholarly attendants. This element aside, the papers were generally stellar and full of new research. Ian Thom, Charles Hill, Kathryn Bridge and Gerta Moray all shed light on who this Canadian artist was, what she was doing, and how her training in the US, London, and Paris and her unique approaches to modernity, form, and encounters with groups of people in a time of crisis shaped Canadian art and indeed shaped modern art.
The director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Ian Dejardin, opened the day’s set of talks with an expression of acute worry that despite his confidence in the exhibition and Dulwich’s strong record of excellent shows on early twentieth-century art, British audiences just wouldn’t get Carr. He suggested that we could use a road-map of influences, demonstrating that Carr’s work resonates with Paul Nash, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Tobey, along with Paul Gauguin and even Eric Ravilious. All this is true, and Carr was particularly engaged with O’Keeffe and Tobey’s work at different points in her long career. But that’s not the point. To what extent is it really necessary to insert Carr’s work into a canon when it’s already established, and permanently, proudly displayed in Canadian collections? Carr to the Vancouver Art Gallery is what Turner is to Tate Britain.
Will visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘get’ Carr? I think they will. The work’s subjects, palette, techniques, social contexts – they all communicate whether visitors feel the need to compare it to Nash, or add it to a long list of Cubistic works of art, or smile to themselves when they see links with Gauguin and Van Gogh, or not. I noticed that amongst all the strong arguments and elegant art historical interpretations of Carr, there was a tendency to do two things that always give me cause for pause. These things make me pause precisely because of my deep interest in British twentieth-century art. They are: a) Carr’s work is good because she went to France and admired the Fauves and Cubism and Post-Impressionism; and b) Carr’s work is good because we can locate it at the avant-garde boundary-pressing progressively thrusting edge towards triumphant abstraction. So far, so Greenberg. That these factors are the ultimate standard of modern art, like a big sign hanging outside the threshold of an artist’s oeuvre stating ‘You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Ride’, should trouble us. Their double-claim on modern objects, images, and subjects leaves too much rejected and despised within a twentieth-century art world teeming with vitality and alternative creative directions.
And what of Carr’s main subjects? Primarily, she painted the trees, ocean, sculptures, architecture, and people of the northwest coastal villages of British Columbia. As curator Charles Hill explained at the Dulwich symposium, her work is interpreted as ethnographic, feminist, modernist, proto-ecological, and much else. She evidently wanted to document (and this is a delicate issue in relation to the legacies of ‘primitivism’, undoubtedly), and she was striving to develop a visual language through which the power of the monumental first nations’ visual culture could be translated effectively and expressively into paint, onto canvas, into new contexts, for new audiences. Without attempting to pretend I’m an art historian who knows much about Carr (truly, I don’t), the best material to read that investigates her practice in relation to first nations’ communities is by Ian Thom and Gerta Moray. Both spoke at Dulwich; both were eye-opening. Emily Carr’s paintings were, in part, bearing witness to people in crisis. Here’s an illustrative statistic: in 1900, if you were Haida and you’d survived the quick and deadly smallpox epidemic, 80% of the people you’d known were dead. First nations’ cultural practices were banned and outlawed, and the colonial damage done to native populations and the tragic and complex legacies of this are well-known narratives with ambiguous and all but eschatological conclusions.
At the beginning of this text, I noted that the question of modern Canadian art was a personal one. At the end of the Dulwich symposium, a small group of people walked up to the front of the room carrying drums. Jim Hart, chief of the Haida Nation, spoke about Carr and about Haida history alongside his family and artists from Haida Gwaii who are traveling through the UK visiting museums. They are studying traces of their cultural heritage, from totem poles to textiles, collected and displayed at the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and elsewhere. They performed several songs, and they explained without hesitation that Carr was an interpreter of Haida material that they respected. One of the musicians has an elderly aunt in Haida Gwaii that remembers Carr during her painting trips. To a room full of white middle-class middle-aged academics (it was a symposium at Dulwich, after all), Hart suggested that visiting Haida Gwaii could not help but deepen understanding of Carr’s own curiosity more than a century ago. He’s right, and he’s chief of the Haida Nation so of course he would think so. But this reminded me of something I don’t often think about.
When I was seven years old, my family went on holiday. I had never been on a plane before. I remember this holiday more clearly than most events from my childhood. I remember being irrepressibly excited. I remember feeling a bit grand at the prospect of 30 000 feet and food served at one’s seat in tiny packets. I remember what I wore on the plane (a jazzy little lime green, neon orange, and black ensemble. It was 1990.). I remember the smell and the feel of Tlell, Skidegate, Masset, and long walks along logging tracks and rocky beaches. I constantly worried that my parents were lost. I suspect occasionally they were. There was a wrecked ship, tall grasses, endless trees that were impossibly huge and heavy with rain (it rained. The. Whole. Time.). This was our first big serious family holiday. My parents wanted to see the villages, to study the art, to walk through the forests, to respectfully understand this place a little better, and appreciate it as a rich, thickly layered, deeply scarred heritage. I had no idea what any of this meant. I was seven. Now I’m thirty-one. And today I saw Emily Carr’s paintings on the walls of a British gallery for the first time. I expected it to be a fascinating and stimulating exhibition of modern art that I would view with affection because it reminded me of my point of origin in British Columbia, which I left over a decade ago. I didn’t expect it to provide such a potent collision of early memory and present research questions.
Going to Dulwich to meet Emily Carr will be nourishing for all who make the journey. I’m not just saying that because I’m Canadian.