From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893, Image H-02813, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
Think you know Emily Carr? Think again. A major exhibition at one of the Britain’s most distinguished galleries is bringing a fresh perspective to the work of the iconic Canadian artist.
From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia opened November 1 at Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. Founded in 1811, Dulwich is England’s first purpose-built public art gallery, and home to an impressive collection of over 600 masterworks by artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, and Canaletto.
But Dulwich is also known for exploring the phenomenon of artists who are famous in their home country, yet virtually unheard of elsewhere — artists like Emily Carr (1871–1945). Her compelling images and story of artistic determination captured the attention of Ian Dejardin, Sackler Director of Dulwich, while he was organizing the institution’s 2011 exhibition on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC (1913). Image PDP02145 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
“Emily Carr was caught in the belated gusts of what was happening in Europe, particularly Post-Impressionism and Fauvism,” said Dejardin, during a recent interview with NGC Magazine. “It is fascinating to me that she felt those influences living — as she put it — at the ‘edge of the world.’ But what is unique to Carr is how she adapted them to her work and developed them in relation to the Canadian landscape.”
The first significant solo exhibition in Europe dedicated to Carr, From the Forest to the Sea explores her encounters with the Indigenous cultures and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Curated by Dejardin and Canadian art critic and writer Sarah Milroy, the exhibition features 140 paintings and artifacts that tell the story of Carr’s dramatic journey “from darkness to light.”
Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour (c. 1930), oil on canvas, 129.8 x 93.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC
That journey begins with some of Carr’s brooding, often claustrophobic forest scenes, such as 1929’s Indian Church. This fascinating work from the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario depicts the forest not merely as backdrop, but as an entity that seems poised to engulf the church — something that may have reflected Carr’s mixed feelings about the work of missionaries, as Dejardin notes. Other powerful pieces from that period include the imposing Blunden Harbour (c. 1930), a “virtuoso” painting and one of nearly 20 works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada.
In addition to featuring some of Carr’s much-loved oil paintings, however, the exhibition also focuses on a lesser-known aspect of Carr’s production. “We decided early on to make watercolours one of the centrepieces of the show,” explains Dejardin, “just to reveal how varied and brilliant a watercolourist Carr was.”
Ranging from quick, little sketches to elaborate works of considerable size, Carr’s watercolours provide insight into her creative process. Some — such as the preparatory sketches for her forest paintings — have been kept in storage for a number of years, and are on public display for the first time. “The watercolour looks like it was applied yesterday,” says Dejardin, adding that, “the works just shine off the paper.”
Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) , oil on paper mounted on board, 26.5 x 40.5 cm. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, BC
The most revelatory works, however, are located in the exhibition’s final room. Encouraged by fellow artist Lawren Harris late in her career, Carr shifted her attention from trying to identify with another culture to seeking her own artistic language. She turned to the sea and the sky for inspiration, producing a series of light-filled, euphoric paintings that may surprise even the most ardent Carr fan.
Rounding out the exhibition is a rich selection of archival material — including Carr’s recently discovered illustrated journal from 1907, Sister and I in Alaska — and a number of First Nations artifacts, all of which show a different side to the artist and illuminate the context in which she worked.
Emily Carr, Happiness (1939), oil on paper, 84.8 x 54 cm. University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic
As for why Carr may be less known outside of Canada, there is no easy answer, although Canadians’ predilection for modesty may have something to with it. “Canadians seem to hide their light under a bushel,” suggests Dejardin. “But the British love landscape as a genre and are fascinated by unfamiliar landscape, so I think the time has come for Canada to start sharing its secrets.”
A collaboration between London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia is on view in London until March 8, 2015. It then travels to Toronto, where it will be on view from April 11 to July 12, 2015. Click here to view works by Emily Carr housed in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection.