The French Modernism of Emily Carr

Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast is the new feature exhibition at the Royal BC Museum.

By David Lennam | Painting by Emily Carr

If Emily Carr had not gone to Paris in 1910, would she have continued to paint in relative obscurity?

The answer may be at the Royal BC Museum’s exhibition, chronicling the Victoria-born painter’s transition into Modernism, during a 16-month sojourn in Paris, when she was 39.

Carr’s artistic growth, and the new eye she cast on her subject, won her eventual international acclaim, though even that came long after her death in 1945. Her Paris period, the exposure to the avant-garde of post-Impressionism artists and the training she received from British ex-pats like William Phelan “Harry” Gibb, allowed her to escape the almost documentary impulse of her watercolour work. In a sense then, Carr did some digging to have a peek at those roots and then fertilized the new growth with the ways of Modernism.

Kathryn Bridge calls Carr’s experience in France a chapter in her life that hasn’t been well examined, at least not by the public.

“Most exhibits or books about Carr don’t talk about her time in France with more than just a paragraph,” explains the co-curator of Fresh Seeing —French Modernism and the West Coast.

The 67 artworks by Carr and her contemporaries in France illustrate how her work changed through her introduction to Fauvism and its vivid expressionism and colour.

Gathered from public and never-publicly-shown private collections and assembled last year by the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Fresh Seeing is paired with a micro-exhibition from the Royal BC Museum’s vast collection of Carr art and assorted ephemera such as postcards, travel expense lists and one of the artist’s hooked rugs.

‘“I think people will become more aware of the huge transition that happened in Carr’s art,” Bridge says.

Carr, as a burgeoning Modernist, no longer felt compelled to paint what she saw but painted what she felt.

“That was the big breakthrough,” Bridge says. “Somebody looking at one of her Modernist paintings (in Carr’s time) would say ‘Why would you use pink and orange and purple, and why have you distorted this aspect and why have you taken this thing out? ’ ”

A West Coast Icon

Born here in 1871, Carr is, of course, Victoria royalty. There she sits in bronze across from the museum, monkey on shoulder, head slightly too big, with a bemused expression. Is she wondering why it took so long for Canada and the world to discover her moody rainforests and remote First Nations villages? The only commercially successful show she had during her life was in Montreal in 1944, a year before she died — and that thanks to the gallery owner buying most of her pieces.

When she’d returned from France, ready to fill canvases with her new, more passionate oils, even the locals were a bit “meh.”

“She came back to Canada, and largely people rejected her new art,” notes Bridge. “She was literally crushed. Only later, as an older woman, did this modern style became acceptable.”

In fact, the first public exhibition of Carr’s work in France didn’t take place until 1991 (curated by Carr scholar Ian Thom at the Vancouver Art Gallery), 80 years after the artist returned from Paris to paint the West Coast but with a newly emotional vocabulary of style.

“And this is the next one,” adds Bridge. “The timeline is way overdue.”

Attempting to trace Carr’s transition through a chronology of her work in France, Bridge spent more than a fortnight in the country, toting an iPad full of paintings Carr did while she was there. Most had been given generic titles like “Cottage in France” or “Street Scene in France,” so Bridge turned sleuth using Carr’s unpublished writings to identify those locales.

“We were able to say, ‘Hey, that street scene in France is Concarneau in Brittany.’ ”

The Original Eccentric

Part of her appeal, and what tended to distance her from others, is that Carr was eccentric and even revolutionary.

“She was often described as ‘That crazy lady who lived down in James Bay,’ ” says Jan Ross, longtime live-in curator of the Emily Carr House on Government Street.

“She was eccentric and unconventional. She had a pet monkey. She smoked. That was a sign for a woman to be radical. She rode a bicycle. She rode a horse astride, which was somewhat scandalous. She lived completely for her art and didn’t fit in, in the way the rest of her (four older) sisters did.”

But she was a genius with a paintbrush and a pen and an inspiring figure even today.

“We don’t get many geniuses in any lifetime, whose work continues to prevail. Hers does, and I think it will for a very long time,” Ross says. The canon of her art and writing indicates an acute awareness of the fleeting nature of our Indigenous civilization and of the natural world.

“She talked about being in the forest and hearing the loggers at work in the 1930s and hearing the trees screaming,” says Bridge, adding that Carr believed she was creating a documentary record of vanishing cultures and saw the importance of situating totem poles in their original settings before they were cut down and shipped to museums or fell to the ground and rotted.

A Respect For First Nations

While many of her contemporaries didn’t wish to understand or interact with Indigenous peoples, and disliked Carr’s paintings of totem poles and villages because they didn’t depict a settler culture’s sense of world order, the artist felt otherwise.

“She had a high regard for the ways in which Indigenous people interacted with nature, in the ways in which they conducted their lives, expressed their belief systems and in the arts they created,” says Bridge.

For contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth artist Hjalmer Wenstob, Carr was ahead of her time for the respect she had, not only for the landscape, but for the people inhabiting it. She recorded on canvas the canoes and villages and even that famous church (1929’s Indian Church, renamed Church at Yuquot Village in 2018).

“She was concerned with this notion of disappearance that was happening at the time and wanted to capture some of that,” Bridge says.

Wenstob, who teaches Indigenous studies and visual art at Camosun College, grew up in Ucluelet with the echoes of Carr in the house and says Carr built relationships with the land and the people of Ucluelet First Nation, both of which had a huge impact on her work.

“Her paintings were histories of those relationships, sharing knowledge of teachings and culture,” Wenstob says.

It is through the relationships she built with First Nations people that a mutual respect was established.

“And you had to come into that community having that respect.”

Fresh Seeing by Emily Carr is at the Royal BC Museum until January 24, 2021.