Monday, 19 January 2015

Happiness, Emily Carr, 1939
It was the tree paintings that bowled me over ... you could almost smell the damp earthiness of the forest floor, feel the pine needles, hear the rustling branches ...

Sketching in the big woods is wonderful. You go, find a space wide enough to sit in and clear enough so that the undergrowth is not drowning you. Then, being elderly, you spread your camp stool and sit and look round. 'Don't see much here.' 'Wait.' Out comes a cigarette. The mosquitoes back away from the smoke. Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly. In and out, in and out your eye passes ... Sunlight plays and dances. Nothing is still now. Life is sweeping through the spaces. Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour ...

I own up. I'd never heard of Emily Carr - who is a household name in Canada - and my excuse is that there is very little opportunity to see Canadian art here.

So I didn't know what to expect from this show at Dulwich, except that it had very good reviews. It turns out that Emily Carr was also a very engaging writer; that extract is from her diary in 1935, when she was 63. She was born in 1871 and, after the early death of both her parents, she took off to Europe to learn to be an artist, then returned to paint the forests and skies and document the legacy of the indigenous peoples of British Columbia.

Self-Portrait, 1938-39
There was a 15 year gap in her career when she more or less gave up on art, when she couldn't make a living from it and became a boarding house landlady instead.

I don't fit anywhere, so I'm out of everything, and I ache and ache. I don't fit in the family and I don't fit in the church and I don't fit in my own house as a landlady. It's dreadful - like a game of musical chairs - I'm always out, never get a seat in time, the music always stops first.

Yet look at the titles of her paintings ... Sunshine - Happiness - Tumult - Windswept Trees.

I loved the illustrated sketchbook of her 1907 holiday in Alaska with her sister, Alice - full of wit and fun about the ups and downs of what must have been quite a gruelling trip.


Gina said...

Fascinating. I'd never heard of her before either but those trees are wonderful.

Miranda | Miranda's Notebook said...

I very much enjoyed her paintings of trees too, and loved that extract from her diary! After I went to the exhibition, my (Canadian) Grandmother contacted me, saying we had a family friend who had once met her - apparently she was quite an eccentric woman!

mary said...

I kept thinking she would be an amazing person to meet, Miranda.

I feel tempted to read her diaries now, Gina.

jamison said...

Hello - I so very much enjoy your blog and wanted to comment today as I am from Victoria. My mother remembered seeing Emily Carr when she was little - she would be out walking around the waterfront with her pet monkey! She was considered quite an eccentric and not the amazing artist she was. Her books are quite good - she wrote several autobiographical ones. Again - love your blogs.
Vancouver Canada

mary said...

Thanks, Bronwen, I'm glad you enjoy it. What a shame that Emily wasn't appreciated during her lifetime. Although I think she was probably happier in the woods than in some swanky gallery.

Cosy Books said...

Brings back memories of my high school art was Emily Carr and Group of Seven all throughout.

Glad you enjoyed the exhibit, Mary!

Susan in Toronto said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. (I'd love to see that sketchbook.)

To get into her life, you could start by reading Hundreds and Thousands, where she pours out her frustrations and triumphs as an artist struggling to be recognised in her own city.

mary said...

We'll have to get you there for the next one, Darlene.

Her writing really brought it alive, Susan. One more for my list.