In her autobiographical sketches, journals and correspondence with friends, Emily Carr constructed a narrative about her life, one that centred on her exclusion from social networks both as an artist and as an individual. Carr also offered no insight into her artistic influences, with the possible exception of Lawren Harris, and alluded to minimal outside help or instruction of any kind. Although for most of her career she lived in self-imposed isolation in Victoria, removed from the artistic centres in eastern Canada and even the fledgling community in Vancouver, she did look to external sources at pivotal moments in her artistic development. Her work roughly mirrors mainstream modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, and despite her anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical stance, the likeness of her work to that of other artists, both in Canada and internationally, suggests that influences were present.
Through her European education, trips across the continent and reading lists provided by her peers, Carr had the opportunity to learn about western European traditions and contemporary innovations in art production. Her work is clearly situated within the modernist tradition, but she selected only those tenets of the expansive movement that facilitated her quest to represent the western landscape and Aboriginal culture. Upon meeting members of the Group of Seven in 1927, Carr played a critical role in the development of a Canadian art form founded in European modernism yet refashioned to serve a Canadian nationalist agenda.
Carr's juvenilia drew on the English picturesque watercolour tradition, and she continued to paint in this academic, placid style until her sojourn in France in 1910. The material that Carr produced from this moment until her meeting with the Group of Seven some sixteen years later was very much within the context of French Post-Impressionism. Although artists in Paris such as Picasso, Braque and Matisse were beginning to shift the modernist movement in a different and more radical direction, Carr's work was more akin to the diluted Post-Impressionism being practised by her expatriate teachers. Carr was part of a generation of Canadian artists, which included future members of the Group of Seven, who absorbed Post-Impressionism while studying in Europe.
With their vibrant colours, Carr's Vancouver street scenes from 1912-13 would not seem out of place alongside the work of the European Fauves, and her commitment to personal vision at the expense of realism solidified her place within the modern movement.1 Though she was unaware of it at the time, Carr's artistic production post-France was akin to work being produced by fellow Canadians James Wilson Morrice, David Milne and Lawren Harris.
Since her death, Carr's ties to the Group of Seven have become secure in the popular imagination and often in art historical contexts as well. Her affinity with the goals and intentions of the Group was the closest artistic connection of her career, and it was not until her loose affiliation with them that she began to receive recognition as a "modern artist." The Group put Canadian art on the map, garnering international interest as they struggled to create a distinctly Canadian brand of modernism. Focusing their attention on the northern landscape, they rejected the traditional refined persona of the artist, adopting instead the rugged guise of a "bushwhacker" who immerses himself in the mercurial natural environment.2 The Group attempted to rid themselves of their colonial past by rejecting the European styles embodied in the Barbizon and Hague schools and, as part of a project to build a national culture, sought to construct a Canadian art form that was rooted in the nation's physical environment.3
Carr's place in the Group's undertaking was more theoretical than stylistic: she shared their interest in the Canadian landscape and sought to create a vision for the west coast that was analogous to their representation of the Canadian North. As the 1927 exhibition Canadian West Coast Art - Native and Modern demonstrated, Carr was not alone in her interest in Aboriginal subject matter. Her attraction to indigenous culture related to both the Group's brand of Canadian modernism, as it eschewed European colonial influence, and to larger currents of modernism in Europe that through Picasso and Gauguin had elevated indigenous art forms to the core of the movement.
Along with the Group, Carr played a role in the mythologization of the Canadian landscape, and together their work continues to influence how Canadians view the land and, more broadly, the nation's cultural identity.
Through her correspondence with Lawren Harris, Carr became aware of northern European symbolism, artists whose work had greatly influenced J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris after they visited the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art in Buffalo in 1913.
Mark Tobey also helped Carr to further her understanding of the emerging trends in contemporary art. He encouraged her to experiment with Abstraction and Cubism and ultimately helped her make a modernist statement by creating form out of three-dimensional forms and abstracted and disjointed shapes.4 Her work from the early 1930s resonates with the experiments of many North American artists who began to dabble with variations of Cubism and Futurism as a means of achieving the essence of form. Carr experimented with Abstraction, mostly in her charcoal sketches from the early 1930s, but quickly rejected it in favour of a more Expressionist style. Both Tobey and Harris introduced Carr to the Symbolist-Abstractionist art that originated in northern Europe, and much of her work on rhythm and movement in the 1930s owes its foundation to these teachings.5
Carr's journal offers little insight into her trip to New York in 1930, but it modified her artistic practice and situated her work within a discourse of modernist landscape art in North America. While in New York she saw a flurry of exhibitions, including Georgia O'Keeffe's Jack-in-the-Pulpit series, an Arthur Dove solo show and work by Charles Burchfield, and Carr returned to British Columbia with an expanded understanding of how to capture the landscape. Art historians often group Carr and O'Keeffe together because of their gender and their shared interest in the landscape, though they met only once. There does, however, seem to be a change in Carr's handling of tree forms immediately after their meeting. Tree Trunk (1931), for example, focuses predominantly on the trunk and is reminiscent of O'Keeffe's flower paintings, which force the viewer to confront the centre of the flower.6 Carr's rhythmic landscape work from the mid-1930s has an affinity with the work of both Dove and Burchfield in their fascination with transcendentalism and the sublime. Her deep interest in uncovering the mystical in the natural landscape connects her to a thread of artistic modernism in North America at this time, one that was indebted to the writings of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Carr's landscape work, especially paintings that date from the mid- to late 1930s, is tied to the nineteenth-century nature romantic tradition. Though she often depicted abandoned and rotting tree stumps, her work offered an idealistic vision of renewal and regrowth. As she advanced in age and began to move toward transcendence and spirituality, she created a style that was entirely her own, one with little connection to where the dominant strain of modernism was heading. Within modernist theory at this time, painting was viewed as an end in itself, and to have spiritual aspirations for one's art was considered antiquated. Although her intentions and techniques often resembled those of others, Carr's independence played a critical role in establishing her legacy as an artist and as a Canadian icon.
1 Ruth Stevens Appelhoff, The Expressionist Landscape: North American Modernist Painting, 1920 - 1947 (Birmingham: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988), p. 39.
2 Gerta Moray, Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), p. 74.
3 Doris Shadbolt, Emily Carr (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990), p. 43.
4 Appelhoff, Expressionist Landscape, p. 60.
5 Jeff Wall, "Traditions and Counter-Traditions in Vancouver Art: A Deeper Background for Ken Lum's Work," The Lectures (Imshchoot, uitgeveres: Witte de With, 1990), p. 69.
6 Appelhoff, Expressionist Landscape, p. 70.