In 1910, Emily Carr travelled to France on a transformative trip that would expose her to new techniques and landscapes, and have a dramatic influence on her work. The trip led to “fresh seeing,” a phrase that would come to serve as the title of as a lecture she would give about the experience years later in Victoria. (The phrase was hers; the lecture was given that title when it was published in 1972.)
It’s also been incorporated into the name of a new exhibition at the Audain Art Museum that brings together work that emerged from this seminal trip. Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast includes work by influential teachers Carr encountered in France; paintings she made while there and after the trip; and, in a particularly illuminating part of the exhibition, work she made before the trip in British Columbia, and new versions she created after she returned with those fresh eyes.
The exhibition brings together more than 50 of her paintings – many of which belong to private and corporate collections and are being exhibited for the first time in decades. It also breaks new ground in Emily Carr scholarship, led by guest co-curator Kathryn Bridge, a noted Carr scholar, and Kiriko Watanabe, the museum’s Gail & Stephen A. Jarislowsky Curator, who separately travelled to France to conduct research by walking in Carr’s footsteps.
Emily Carr travelled to Paris with her sister Alice, who had learned French for the occasion; Emily did not speak the language. They rented a small apartment in the Latin Quarter, and Carr began art classes a short walk from home. But Carr’s health issues made the city intolerable, and she moved to the small medieval town of Crécy-en-Brie with one of her instructors, Harry Phelan Gibb, and his wife. The group later moved to Brittany.
Bridge travelled to these places with photos of Carr’s work on her iPad and went about conducting detective work. She was able to match some of Carr’s paintings with their actual locations – something that was not as easy as it sounds, given the generic titles these paintings were later given, mostly by the executors of her estate. Carr shipped home likely at least 100 oil paintings and watercolours, but few sold during her lifetime.
It is amazing to see Carr’s work next to photos taken during Bridge’s trip. Carr’s oil on board Crécy-en-Brie, 1911, shows the same details as the 2018 photo – a wrought iron balcony, small washing sheds. In another instance, Village by the Sea, 1911, is installed next to a photo of the same view in Saint-Michel-en-Grève taken in 2018; Bridge discovered that Carr would have had to make quite a trek up a hill and around the water in order to sketch the village from that perspective. The watercolour over charcoal Village Square with Cross No. 1, 1911, is exhibited next to photo from Bridge’s trip of a small church in Lanriec, clearly showing the same monument.
Other paintings from France are paired with historical photographs of the same setting, also dug up by Bridge.
The exhibition, and the excellent accompanying catalogue, quote extensively from Carr’s own writing – drawing largely from her original, unpublished manuscripts.
Matching the text with the paintings also led to discoveries about Carr’s time in France. The 1911 oil Four Children in a Breton Cottage is displayed with a piece of Carr’s writing. She describes a stone cottage on a hill – a woman with four children, a big open hearth with a huge iron pot hanging over the fire, the earthen floor swept clean: just what you see in the painting.
The exhibition also documents the transformation in Carr’s work. In Le Paysage (Brittany Landscape), 1911, the blue sky is a modernist expression, with bold blue brush strokes against exposed board; the landscape is highly textured, created with layers and layers of paint; and the trees and cottages are boldly outlined.
It is an astonishing contrast from the first painting in the show, an example of what was likely Carr’s earlier work in France, a small, darker oil on board, Old Mill House, Near Paris, c. 1910, that is more conservative and realist in tone.
Another work in the show, Stormy Day, Brittany, was last exhibited more than a century ago, in 1913, at the Island Arts and Crafts Club in Victoria. It was also one of two works of Carr’s that were included in the prestigious 1911 Salon d’Automne in Paris. Carr was one of only three Canadian artists in the show.
She may have been encouraged to submit the paintings by Phelan Gibb who, before Carr moved on, told her: “‘If you go on [with your painting] you should be one of the women painters of the world,’” Carr wrote. “I held my breath and looked at him in pure amazement.”
After 16 months away, Carr arrived in Victoria in November, 1911 with a new painting style – a radical transformation over such a brief period of time. Back home, she returned to some of the work she had made in British Columbia documenting First Nations culture, creating new versions with a new modernist style. The show includes several before-and-after examples. War Canoes, Alert Bay, 1912 is a knockout; a bold and colourful oil version of the more conservative, sombre watercolour Carr had made in 1908. The difference transcends the aesthetic. As Watanabe points out in her catalogue essay, the original conveys the mood of a deserted seaside. For me, the 1912 version feels more alive – depicting a living, vibrant culture.
That is not to say the early watercolours aren’t remarkable – or historically valuable. Carr’s work in these communities offers an important historical record. As Gitxsan artist Ya’Ya Heit, interviewed by Watanabe for the show, says, “I see where my family poles were. I see what the village was like. … There’s life with those poles – that’s part of Emily’s accomplishment.”
In the summer of 1912, Carr travelled for six weeks up the Northwest Coast to First Nations communities in British Columbia, visiting Gitxsan, Wet’suwet’en, Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw communities – some of which were very remote. The exhibition concludes with some of the works that emerged from that trip. Carr believed her new way of seeing enabled her to better capture this world – even if the work wasn’t necessarily popular with her B.C. audience.
Carr delivered that “Fresh Seeing” speech to the Women’s Canadian Club of Victoria in 1930 – a rare public address that coincided with a major exhibition, her first in her hometown. In that address, she tells the audience that she knows many of them “cordially detest” modern art, but then she works to persuade them. “The art world was fed up, saturated with lifeless stodge – something had to happen,” she told them. “And it did.”
Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast is at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler until January 19. It is at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton Feb. 29 – May 31.
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