Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Emily Carr in her studio, 1939 (Harold Mortimer-Lamb/Vancouver Art Gallery)
Emily Carr in her studio, 1939 (Harold Mortimer-Lamb/Vancouver Art Gallery)

visual arts

Emily Carr: a painter on the edge of recognition? Add to ...

Emily C arr may not have died wealthy in 1945 but she died famous, in a Canadian sort of way. Her paintings were known and popular. Her first book, Klee Wyck (”Laughing One”) , had won the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction in 1941. The University of British Columbia was going to award her an honorary doctorate that spring. And The Globe and Mail, on page 7 of its edition of March 3, 1945, gave her a relatively lengthy one-column obituary, with picture, starting at the top of the page.

Since then, Carr’s status in this country has become as iconic as the West Coast totem poles she painted. One indicator: eight of her canvases are among the top 100 paintings ever sold at auction in Canada, with 1939’s Wind in the Treetops ranking ninth thanks to a winning bid of almost $2.2-million, made just three years ago in Vancouver.

Now, Carr might be on the cusp of a wave of international recognition. It stems, in part, from an exhibition of seven of her most illustrious paintings, from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection, at dOCUMENTA (13), the prestigious and influential international art showcase held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Carr is the first Canadian ever accorded this posthumous honour. And the thing is, her paintings, with their bold forms, mythic motifs, rhythmic energy and emotive power, have never felt fresher or looked more “with it.” An estimated 800,000 visitors, including heavyweight curators, critics and collectors, are expected at this year’s spectacle, which began earlier this month and runs a mere 100 days. Can this be, one wonders, the requisite critical mass to achieve apotheosis, where Carr begins to be spoken of in the same breath and as widely as Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel? Or will it be the paradox of too much too late, with Carr’s moment tantalizingly close, yet forever receding?

Carr, you see, has been on this cusp before, in life and in death. Temperamentally prickly and solitudinous, Carr often complained about the pitfalls of being isolated and working in an artistic backwoods. Yet she was hardly the untrained artist, ignored and unnoticed. In her final 15 years, in fact, she exhibited in Seattle and San Francisco, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Tate in London, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Exposition Internationale in Paris. In 1952, she was one of four artists chosen to represent Canada at its debut at the Venice Biennale. Twenty years later there were Carr solo shows at the Commonwealth Institute in London and the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. 1988 saw her included with the Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and American titans such as Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery in a tightly focused show, The Expressionist Landscape 1920-1947, that toured four U.S. cities, including New York. Enthused the critic for The Christian Science Monitor: “Carr’s pictures all by themselves made this a memorable exhibition. They prove, as most Canadians know and many Americans are beginning to discover, that she was one of the finest and most original landscape painters of her time.”

A year later Carr became the first Canadian artist accorded a solo exhibition in China, a 30-picture package that subsequently toured Japan and South Korea. In 2001-2002, the distinguished U.S. art historian and curator Sharyn Udall coupled Carr with O’Keeffe and Kahlo in a popular touring show called Places of Their Own. During a three-month stay at what is now the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe, it drew close to 90,000 visitors, a record. While Kahlo and O’Keeffe were the draws, of course, many reviewers singled out the British Columbian as the show’s real star. But enough to pique the interest of, say, New York’s Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum in acquiring a Carr or entertaining a Carr show? No. Neither has any Carrs in its permanent collection.

So, will it be different this time? For Santa Fe’s Udall, “it’s a mystery to me how Emily can continue to lap at international recognition.” One can see why, perhaps, during her liftetime she failed to connect. “Emily, most of the time, was just trying to make it on her own, and sometimes her own decisions and her own personality got in the way,” Udall notes. Perhaps being a spinster, lacking in femme fatale appeal, and not being seen as part of a larger (and romantic) narrative or movement also had something to do with it. While Harris was a friend and supporter, Carr did not have what Udall calls “the single, powerful, [male] champion to help vault her to the top of her profession . . . There wasn’t a person like Alfred Stieglitz, who, I think, was largely reponsible for Georgia O’Keeffe’s tremendous success, and the same thing with Diego Rivera for Frida Kahlo.”

Of course, that’s very much in the past. The question now is: Is all that past but a prelude to this moment, the moment we have all been waiting for, to see Emily Carr arise and arrive?

“We don’t know,” Ian Thom says. An art historian, senior curator at the VAG, a Carr expert and the man who recently travelled to Kassel to hang the seven VAG Carrs, Thom doesn’t deny the significance of dOCUMENTA –both real and potential – or the fact that Carr’s fame has steadily grown to the point that a couple of years ago he found himself helping an Israeli student prepare a doctoral thesis about her. “But generally what has happened in the past, in my experience, is people see her work, say, ‘Oh, she’s a really interesting artist’ and then there’s a bit of interest in her and then it dies away.”

Only in Canada has she sustained herself as a household name. It’s Canadians who remain the most aggressive bidders for Carrs, and expatriate Canucks who most covet her oeuvre outside the country’s borders.

For Udall, though, “she remains much too good to leave alone,” which is why she’s started discussions with Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo about pairing the paintings of Charles Burchfield with those of Carr in a future show. Unquestionably, there are non-Canadian connoisseurs and curators “who recognize her as being important,” Thom added. “But the really critical thing is, museums these days have to think, Is it going to bring people in? If she’s not a household name and so therefore if you’re going to expend the money for an exhibition, would Carr be the one to do it with? [In 1993] the Hayward Gallery in London did a major exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe and it didn’t do well at all [among critics and numbers of visits], and yet I’d assume most people would think of O’Keeffe as dramatically more famous than Emily Carr.”

In the meantime, fellow Canadians David Heffel and Ash Prakash counsel patience. “Unlike the tsunami that rocks the contemporary art world instantly and often momentarily, the historical art world emerges inevitably,” says Prakash, a Toronto collector, dealer and author of Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists. Carr, Harris, David Milne and J.W. Morrice are “the four Canadian masters” gaining traction internationally, “albeit slowly but progressively.” For Heffel, whose eponymous Vancouver auction house last month sold Eagle Totem, a 1930 Carr canvas, for $1.6-million, “Carr has the assets to make her stand up proudly with the greats of the 20th century.” However, “it’s like building the Empire State Building. You still have to build it one brick at a time. dOCUMENTA for Carr is one of those bricks.”

And if dOCUMENTA doesn’t do it? Well, with Emily Carr, there’s always a next year, it seems. In this case, Carr’s next best hope may be the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. From October, 2011, through early January this year, it hosted a well-received and well-attended exhibition of works by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, culled from the best Canadian collections. It subsequently toured museums in the Netherlands and Germany, again drawing crowds and positive notices. The Dulwich is reportedly interested in doing the same for Carr.

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular