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Emily Carr: Collected

By Ian M. Thom

Review By Maria Tippett

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 160-61

Two weeks after Emily Carr’s death on 3 March 1945, former Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris, travelled from his home in Vancouver to Victoria. As the artistic executor of Carr’s estate it fell upon him to dispose of the several hundred paintings that remained in her studio. Harris divided the work into three categories. One hundred and seventy works, dating from the last fourteen years of Carr’s life, were designated for the “Emily Carr Trust Collection.” Paintings, largely from Carr’s French period, were to be sold through Max Stern’s Dominion Gallery in Montreal to help the Vancouver Art Gallery maintain the Trust Collection. And a third group of paintings and drawings was consigned to a bonfire.

Today anything created by Emily Carr — from her pottery and hooked rugs to her oil canvases and oil-on-paper sketches — fetches enormous prices in the auction houses. One may therefore wonder if Lawren Harris made the correct decision in destroying any of her work. If the illustrations reproduced by Ian Thom’s Emily Carr: Collected are anything to go by, however, Harris was surely right.

The fact is that, just like the girl with a little curl, Emily Carr could be very, very good or very, very bad as an artist. Ian Thom prefers to take a more indulgent view. “The Raven” and “Old Time Coast Village” are held to “resonate with a depth of feeling and a powerful pictorial force” (10). Yet his claim that “The Raven,” which came to the Vancouver Art Gallery through a private collection, is among her “remarkable achievements” seems contestable (10). Likewise, one might question Thom’s claim that “A Skidegate Pole” and “A Skidegate Beaver Pole” are “wonderful paintings,” since in these late works Carr notably failed to resolve the disjuncture between the swirling undergrowth and the heavily modelled static totem poles (12).

It is difficult for Thom to offer “a compact and comprehensive collection of Emily Carr’s artwork” — as the media release claims — in a book whose illustrations are drawn exclusively from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s patchy collection of Carr’s work. There is, though, sufficient biographical information available to enable Thom to have avoided clichés and errors in his introductory essay: “`A Lone Old Tree,’ The Art and Life of Emily Carr.” “Like all artists,” he writes, “she was at times wracked with self-doubt — unsure of her direction, the quality of her work, and the meaning of her life” (5). This seems simplistic, given the deep psychological reasons why Carr perceived herself as different, and channeled the negative energy that her condition produced into her art. It is not true that Carr’s “first images of First Nations peoples and their way of life” were rendered on her trip to Ucluelet/Hiitats’uu in 1898, as Thom claims (6). Carr had
in fact sketched Native canoes and dwellings on the Songhees Reserve five years earlier. Nor is Thom correct to state: “Between 1913 and 1927, Carr did little painting because she felt that there was no support for her art (8).” Admittedly, Carr raised Bobtail sheepdogs, made pottery, and ran an apartment house during these years. But she was hardly without artistic stimulation and support for her work, given her contact with Modernist Seattle artists, Viola and Ambrose Patterson, and the exhibition of her experimental landscape paintings in Seattle, San Francisco and Victoria. She also published her cartoons and verse in the Western Woman’s Weekly and painted a mural for San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel.

It may make a good, simple story to treat most of what Carr produced as masterpieces and to think of her as a neglected and temperamentally insecure artist. This fits the image of what the public thinks an artist should be — and it also helps to keep the prices for everything she produced high. But Carr’s oeuvre deserves more discriminating attention if her remarkable achievements at the peak of her career are to receive their due. This well-produced volume displays some of that work very effectively and for that it can certainly be commended.

Emily Carr: Collected
By Ian M. Thom
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre in association with the Vancouver Art 
Gallery, 2013. 152 pp. 120 images, $19.95 paper