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

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

Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin, Editors

Reviewed by Maria Tippett

Over sixty years after her death, Emily Carr has hit the international scene. It began in June 2012 when seven of her paintings were featured in Kassell, Germany’s prestigious Documenta, an art fair that showcases modern and contemporary art. And in 2014 London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto mounted the exhibition From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia. A few paintings by Carr had been exhibited in London during the interwar years. But she was virtually ignored. Not so in 2014. London’s Guardian among other newspapers in Britain gave her a two-page spread (2 November 2014) and the Dulwich gallery exhinbition had a record attendance.

The catalogue accompanying From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia is the work of two curators: Canada’s Sarah Milroy and England’s Ian Dejardin. Like so many exhibition catalogues in the recent past, its essays and interviews come from many hands and are of uneven quality. Dejardin’s romp through the artist’s biography, “A Life of Emily Carr,” nods to political correctness (“Certainly she did not always understand it [Native art]” ( 21)), perpetuates misconceptions about Carr’s life (he contestably calls 1913-1927 the artist’s “dark years” (26)), and compares Carr’s work to the English painter Graham Sutherland (whose most significant paintings were produced long after the Canadian artist was active). Karen Duffek’s short essay on a Nuu-chah-nulth whaling harpoon head has no relationship to Carr’s work at all. Ian Thom’s essay claims that, unlike Carr, the “Victorians were uninterested” in canoes (217). A glance at seascape paintings in British Columbia from Captain Cook’s eighteenth century artist John Webber to the myriad of nineteenth century landscape painters show that they frequently added a proverbial canoe to their fragile watercolours and sketches.

Where the catalogue and the exhibition rise above recent exhibitions devoted to Carr is in including carvings and baskets rendered by Kwakwaka’wakw sculptor Mungo Martin and Haida artists Charles and Isabella Edenshaw, among many anonymous Native artists. Mingling First Nations’ art with European-inspired paintings is not new. In 1905 Edmund Morris exhibited his portraits of Big Bear and Chief Poundmaker alongside carvings produced by unnamed Native artists. And in 1927 Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada staged its Exhibition of West Coast Art -- Native and Modern that was dominated by the paintings of Emily Carr. But in those exhibitions Native sculpture were subordinated to the paintings. And while there is no doubt that Emily Carr herself is the subject of From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, the curators have taken considerable care to acquire the Native perspective on Carr’s work. For example, Haida artist James Hart writes about the Tow Hill Pole, a work that inspired Carr’s painting Totem and Forest (1931). Hart identifies the carver (Sqiltcánge), the pole’s subject (Bear Mother), and the pole’s owner (it was made for Hart’s forefather, Albert Edward Edenshaw). Sarah Milroy’s interview with Alert Bay’s Corrine Hunt is equally illuminating. The Kwak-waka’wakw artist gives her response to Carr’s work. “For the most part her pictures of Alert Bay seem very still to me,” Hunt states. And she continues, “When I think of the village I think of a place that is very busy -- there are so many activities that could have been portrayed -- but her figures are mostly just sitting around, and it seems to be only women and sometimes children” (53).

Milroy’s essay and this interview alone justify the accolades that this exhibition and this catalogue have received, thereby making From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia a worthy addition to the Emily Carr oeuvre.

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia
Sarah Milroy and Ian Dejardin, editors
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2015. 304 pp. $50.00 cloth

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17