Emily Carr “Fresh Seeing” – Now showing at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria

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In 1910 Emily Carr journeyed from the West Coast of Canada to Paris, France, where she spent 16 months studying the modernist art scene, painting in Paris studios and en plein air (outdoors). She abandoned her traditional, conservative style of painting by adopting a bold Post-Impressionist style, one that employed large canvases, replaced watercolours with oil, and used brushstrokes loaded with paint in brilliant colours of red, orange, blue and yellow. Her sensibility had completely transformed. Carr was “fresh seeing.”
Indian House Interior with Totems – 1912-13
On returning from France to the West Coast, we can only imagine the joyous jolt Carr felt, seeing the Canadian wilderness again: the sharp, soaring cut of coastlines; dark green old-growth forests; blue and white crags rising; imposing red arbutus and cedar; soaring totem poles, depicting stylized animals and figures.

Initially, Carr’s approach wasn’t respected in British Columbia as it had been in Paris, and she shot back, “Canadian painters must strive to express Canada. Misty landscapes and gentle cows do not express Western Canada, even the cows know that.”

Despite the lacklustre response she received in B.C., Carr was energized and had newfound confidence from the accolades she’d won in Paris. Carr kept swinging her brush, prodigiously so. And in Carr’s hands, the collision of modernism with the rugged West Coast of Canada as its subject was exciting, profound and original. The artist was no longer interested in capturing a landscape by painting detailed, realistic scenes in muted colours. Carr hungered to portray the emotion and feeling of a wild landscape. Her dramatic leap in style is evident in War Canoes, Alert Bay, painted in 1908, and War Canoes, Alert Bay, completed in 1912.

War Canoes, Alert Bay - 1908
War Canoes, Alert Bay - 1912

Compare the remarkable transformation between the two War Canoes paintings and others at the Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast special exhibition featured at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Sept. 21, 2019 – Jan. 19, 2020.

Examine the chronological changes in Carr’s artworks over a three-year period from 1910-1912, in the collection co-curated by the AAM’s Gail & Stephen A. Jarislowsky Curator - Kiriko Watanabe and Dr. Kathryn Bridge, with 50 paintings, drawings and watercolours by Carr. In addition, the exhibition offers a fascinating complement of works by mentors who influenced her development as an artist, including English painter Henry William Phelan Gibb, Scottish painter John Duncan Fergusson and New Zealand watercolourist Frances Hodgkins.

For an in-depth analysis and new research on the three-year period in Carr’s artistic career, including her writings and colour photographs of her paintings and sketches, pick up a copy of the book Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast, by authors Kiriko Watanabe, Robin Laurence, Kathryn Bridge and Michael Polay.

Organized by the Audain Art Museum, this exhibition is now showing at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria until Jan 24, 2021.