Regarding Emily

Taking a fresh look at Emily Carr

By Rachel Giese
June 6, 2006
Emily Carr
Emily Carr in her studio with Sunshine and Tumult,
c. 1936 Photo Harold Mortimer-Lamb. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

One of the best stories about Emily Carr is that in order to conserve space and to discourage guests, she would suspend chairs from the ceiling of her studio. If she liked you, she would lower a seat. If she didn’t, you’d just have to stand with Carr’s monkey, cats, dogs, squirrels and rats scrabbling around your feet — her pet parrot usually remained perched on her shoulder — until Carr was finished with you.

One of Canada’s great artists and most fascinating characters, Carr was what could charitably be called an eccentric. “An oddment and a natural-born solitaire” was how she described herself, “contrary from the start.” The images of the West Coast captured in her work heralded the rise of a modern and distinctly Canadian aesthetic. But even as her acclaim and reputation grew, Carr preferred to see herself as “the little lady on the edge of nowhere.”

Born in Victoria, B.C. in 1871 to bourgeois, religious British parents, Carr cultivated her volatile, black-sheep persona at an early age. She chafed at convention — smoking and swearing, studying art in Europe and America and travelling to remote native communities. It was behaviour unheard of for a woman at the time.

Carr was inspired by sources as diverse as native carvers and the Post-Impressionists. An important later influence was the Group of Seven. Upon meeting them in 1927, she wrote this in her journal: “Oh, these men, this Group of Seven, what have they created? — a world stripped of earthiness, shorn of fretting details, purged, purified; a naked soul, pure and unashamed; lovely spaces filled with serenity.”

Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art for Ottawa’s National Gallery, calls Carr “a woman for all seasons. She was a multi-dimensional person. There was so much about her that is contentious and contradictory. And there are so many issues that can be discussed in her life and work: Native issues, feminism, the environment.”

Along with Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian Thom and Université de Montréal art history professor Johanne Lamoureux, Hill has curated Emily Carr: New Perspectives. The retrospective, which opened June 2 in Ottawa, examines Carr through the social and political context in which she worked, as well as two shows that defined her career: the National Gallery’s 1927 Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art Native and Modern and the 1945 Emily Carr Memorial Exhibition.

“We knew we didn’t want to do an ordinary retrospective,” Hill says. “We were interested in how relevant Carr’s work remains. How involved and engaged it was in the issues of her time and how much it comments on our own.”

Emily Carr: New Perspectives runs until Sept 4 at the National Gallery in Ottawa, and then moves to the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

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