Monday, 9 March 2015
Emily Carr at Dulwich Gallery: "A Continual Miracle"
Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidegate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, 76.2 x 56.7 cm, 1980.034.001, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde
I finally went to Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition of Emily Carr, the artist from British Columbia who for me is local. For most of her life, her home was in Victoria, which is also my hometown. Her house is a museum which is a stone's throw from where some of my friends live and not far from my childhood home. Her grave is in Ross Bay Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in Canada and just down the road from my house.
It was strange to see Emily Carr's works in a London gallery, especially when a few of the paintings and sketches depicted places I grew up with and saw almost daily, such as Clover Point and Ross Bay. In part, this exhibition followed on from the Group of Seven exhibition a few years ago, which was an enormous success. Carr was associated with the Group of Seven, but their works mostly represent other parts of Canada, especially Ontario. Emily Carr was a pure West Coaster and her works depicting areas such as Haida Gwaii and the Skeena River are iconic. I admit that part of the interest of these exhibitions is the feeling of moving through like a shadow and watching the mostly British art lovers look at paintings and descriptions of places I know, or at least places close to home, with the interest and bewilderment of those confronted by something quite exotic. The exhibition also featured artifacts of First Nations tribes from the Pacific Northwest such as the Haida, Gitxsan and Tsimshian, which helped to put the places she went to and depicted in context.
I was surprised at how richly the paintings struck me, after never being terribly interested as a child, and forgetting many except the most famous pieces. The deep forest paintings featured a rich, hallucinogenic green and shapes both rounded and geometric. In lighter, more open woods and her more impressionistic period, the trees seem to be swirling in a wind on the canvas, drawing the eye upwards. Other paintings and sketches show First Nations buildings, canoes and totem poles in vivid, documentary-style detail.
Emily Carr, Tree (spiralling upward), 1932-1933, oil on paper, 87.5 x 58.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.63, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery
Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas, Overall: 108.6 x 68.9 cm. ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970, 69/118
An extremely independent and adventurous woman, especially for her time period, Carr was also a writer - mostly of prose, but she loved and appreciated the poetry of Walt Whitman and the British Romantics. This Whitman poem, 'Miracles', was a particular favourite of Carr's, especially the last two stanzas.
MIRACLES (Walt Whitman)
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim - the rocks - the motion of the waves - the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?