Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast

AUDAIN ART MUSEUM — September 21 through January 19, 2020

Canadian painters must strive to express Canada. Misty landscapes and gentle cows do not express Western Canada; even the cows know that.” This pithy quote from Emily Carr is breathtaking considering all it embodies — her sharp wit, radical shift in perspective and fearless imagination. A visionary painter, Carr was ahead of her time. She pulled away from a traditional, conservative style of painting to embrace a Post-Impressionist style that truly expresses the bold colours and rugged nature of the West Coast of Canada.

Her extraordinary transformation is evident in the innovative exhibition “Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast,” at the Audain Art Museum, Sept. 21 to Jan.19, 2020. The exhibition features more than 50 paintings, watercolours and drawings by Carr and a selection of paintings by artists who directly influenced her growth, including works by Henry William Phelan Gibb, John Duncan Fergusson and Frances Hodgkins.

War Canoes, Alert Bay – 1908

The collection also offers new research and in-depth analysis focussing on the three vital years from 1910 to 1912, when Carr’s artistic career developed dramatically. Exhibition co-curator Dr. Kathryn Bridge — one of the world’s foremost Emily Carr scholars — journeyed to France last fall to follow in Carr’s footsteps and search for the exact places she had painted. Bridge discovered and photographed the precise locations where Carr created “Brittany Street Scene and Village Square with Cross No.1” more than a century ago, and it’s fascinating to compare the paintings with contemporary photographs. Time seems barely to have breathed. And yet, in the greater context, the extensively researched exhibition gives the AAM its “historical teeth” as an art museum breaking new ground.

“Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing” co-curator Kiriko Watanabe travelled to Haida Gwaii with iPad images of Emily Carr’s Haida Gwaii paintings that the artist completed after her return from France. Watanabe spoke with local Haida Gwaii artists and got their feedback on how they perceived Carr’s rendering of the art of their ancestors. “And so that again is a major push forward in terms of research about Emily Carr, where First Nations’ voices are considered into the middle of this conversation,” says Dr. Curtis Collins, director and chief curator of the AAM.

War Canoes, Alert Bay – 1912

There is perhaps no better example of Carr’s momentous change in style than the comparison of “War Canoes, Alert Bay,” painted in 1908, and “War Canoes, Alert Bay,” completed in 1912. The former is depicted in muted watercolours while the latter, almost identical in composition, is painted in oil with emotionally expressive, bright and generous strokes of paint.

Left: Village by the Sea, Brittany - 1911 Right: Saint-Michel-en-Grève, the village depicted in Emily Carr’s painting, Village by the Sea, Brittany. Photo by K. Nearly, 2018

For an understanding of Carr’s entire career, view the AAM’s permanent collection — rehung in a thematic way — in tandem with the special exhibition. “You’ll see three paintings of arbutus trees over 15 or 20 years all lined up in a row, so you can see how she treats that subject matter differently over the course of a few decades,” Collins says. “Similarly, we positioned one of our most famous and valuable Emily Carr paintings — ‘The Crazy Stair’ piece, as it’s known — where you can view it through a showcase that features a Dzunukwa mask, which is the same image of the First Nations sculpture in the painting.”

Indian Village, Alert Bay – 1912

For more information about the Audain Art Museum’s exhibitions and special events, visit audainartmuseum.com.

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