New Emily Carr exhibition in N.B. explores curious, thoughtful work that still resonates today
'New Brunswick has never had an exhibition of this calibre of Emily Carr's work'
More than 50 artworks of Emily Carr, one of Canada's most prominent modern painters of the 20th century, will be showcased at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton starting Saturday.
The exhibition explores the all-encompassing changes in the artist's work between her two years living and studying art in France and the one year immediately after she came back to Canada.
"New Brunswick has never had an exhibition of this calibre of Emily Carr's work," said John Leroux, the gallery's manager of collections and exhibitions.
The work deals with environmental issues and First Nations issues such as colonization and social change, which makes it "extremely timely," according to Leroux.
Kathryn Bridge, curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and co-curator of Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast said to her the exhibition was "very dramatic.
"It contains a lot of new information about Carr's transformation into a modernist artist," she said. "We can see the actual changes."
Who was Emily Carr?
Emily Carr was a Canadian painter and writer born in Victoria on Dec. 13, 1871. She was the second-youngest of nine children.
Carr was always devoted to her art, through which she depicted the different cultures of the Canadian Northwest.
But her family did not understand or support this devotion because of their financial strain, and through the years, Carr's love of art isolated her from her siblings.
The artist left British Columbia after her parents died of tuberculosis during her late teens to study at the California School of Design in 1890.
In 1910, Carr decided to study abroad again, this time in France, where she learned how to paint in a post-impressionist style.
Since then, her paintings started to reflect a new Fauvistic style, characterized by bold brush strokes and unmixed colours.
"When she was [in France], she was like a sponge, looking at everyone's technique and style," said Bridge.
"I don't think Emily Carr would have become the artist that we know if she had not been to France."
Succeeding in a patriarchal society
Carr was one of the very few women artists in the early 1900s who gave up pastoral landscapes, domestic scenes, and portraits to paint themes of cultural significance, like totem poles, canoes and churches, according to Lisa Baldissera, an independent curator from British Columbia who has published papers about Carr's life.
"She was pursuing art in a very serious way when many women did not, and she was on the west coast, very isolated. Today, she is a role model." said Bridge.
Coming home full of energy
Upon her return to British Columbia around 1912, Carr continued to document the First Nations cultures of the province, according to Baldissera.
"I was better equipped both for teaching and study because of my year and a half in France, but still mystified, baffled as to how to tackle our big West," wrote Carr in Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr.
That summer, Carr left Vancouver for a six-week sketching trip to First Nations communities in Skeena Country, Haida Gwaii and Alert Bay with her two parrots Josephine and Rebecca. She travelled with the parrots in cages.
"Having a parrot kind of broke the ice," said Bridge.
Carr produced a great amount of work during this time using vivid colours she had never used before.
"She came back from France inspired to paint the subject matters of her own country. To her that was First Nations communities and their monumental sculptures," said co-curator Kiriko Watanabe from the Audain Art Museum in British Columbia.
Watanabe said if Carr had not visited those communities at the time she did, we would not have the perspective her paintings provide of this era.
Leroux said he wants the public to leave the show with an interest for Indigenous art, "whether it is the traditional art from the 19th and early 20th century to contemporary Indigenous art today."
Bridge said she wants visitors to walk away with a sense of admiration.
"I want them to walk away with, 'Oh wow, I did not know that.' That is my hope."
The official opening of the exhibition will be held on Saturday at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It runs until May 31.