Emily Carr’s Artistic Celebration of the First Nations

New York | 19 November

R ebellious and determined, Emily Carr found inspiration in the forest, sea and sky of her native British Columbia, as well as the indigenous communities she encountered there. Her pioneering engagement with political, spiritual and ecological subjects places her in the company of contemporaries like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, as her nation’s preeminent woman painter of the early twentieth century. Criticized in her day for her unconventional approach, Carr responded with characteristic defiance:

Art is art, nature is nature, you cannot improve on it…Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist…I do not say mine is the only way to paint. I only say it’s the way that appeals to me; to people lacking imagination it could not appeal.”
Emily Carr, Province, Vancouver, April 8, 1912

One of five sisters, she lost her mother at the age of fourteen and her father passed only two years later, leaving her eldest sister to provide for the family. Carr studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco, returning in 1893. By teaching art she saved money to travel to England in 1899, first attending the Westminster School of Art, where she was disappointed by the conservative atmosphere, and then traveling to St. Ives, an artist colony near Cornwall. Perhaps as a consequence of her tireless ambition, she was diagnosed with hysteria and hospitalized at East Anglican Sanatorium for over a year, finally retrieved by her sister and brought back to Canada in 1904.

In 1907, Carr and her sister Alice embarked upon a pivotal journey up the west coast, traveling as far north as Sitka, Alaska, where she saw totem poles for the first time. To describe the undertaking as “intrepid” would be an understatement: many villages were reachable only by canoe, fishing boat or trail, guided by the indigenous people with whom she stayed, or else on her own in the forest, enduring torrential rain and other challenges. The experience imbued Carr with an enduring appreciation for aboriginal cultures and traditions, and she determined “to try and make as good a representative collection of those old villages and totem poles as [she] could, for the love of the people and the love of the places and the love of the art.” (Emily Carr, Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emilly Carr and Other Writings, ed. Susan Crean, Vancouver, Canada, 2003, p.204).

Emily Carr, Skedans, 1912. Estimate $3,000,000–5,000,000.

A 1910 trip to Paris, then the undisputed center of the international art world, energized Carr’s more radical stylistic inclinations; exposed to modern developments in painting and specifically to the Fauves, Carr expanded her palette to include bold, saturated colors applied with loose, animated brushwork. In 1912, working feverishly in her new style, Carr mounted a six-week expedition to visit fifteen First Nations villages including Skedans in the Haida Gwaii (then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). It was on this trip that she produced the present work, later recalling:

I went out to sketch the poles. They were in a long straggling row the entire length of the bay and pointed this way and that; but no matter how drunken their tilt, the Haida poles never lost their dignity. They looked sadder, perhaps, when they bowed forward and more stern when they tipped back. They were bleached to a pinkish silver color and cracked by the sun, but nothing could make them mean or poor.
Emily Carr, “Skedans,” Klee Wyck (the artist’s memoirs, published in 1941).

Emily Carr on horseback during a visit to the Cariboo Regional District, British Columbia, circa 1909. Photograph courtesy Art Canada Institute, Toronto, Ontario

An inquisitive outsider, she was concerned by a culture on the brink of extinction, sensitive to the perception that she was complicit in the colonization of these places. Accordingly, Carr’s treatment of her subjects is distinctive for its empathy and immediacy; rejecting “primitivism” and ethnographic tendencies, her approach is humble, reverential and deeply personally reflective. In Carr’s rendering, the brilliantly colored landscape and weathered totems are unified by expressive brushwork, reasserting their spiritual connection with one another. With its wide panoramic format, Skedans conveys the power of this place and the wonder with which she greeted it.

When Carr’s second Vancouver exhibition failed to attract an audience, Carr had few resources and nearly abandoned painting. It wasn’t until 1927 that Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, approached her to exhibit paintings in Ottawa at the suggestion of ethnographer Marius Barbeau. She submitted twenty-six works, including Skedans, to the exhibition, for which she constructed the painting’s current frame out of found wood. The exhibition connected her for the first time to the Group of Seven, reenergizing her career and leading to the expressive body of work for which she is now best known.

"Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist"
Emily Carr

Appearing at auction for the first time in its history, Skedans is a masterpiece of the artist’s early period. Notable for its monumental scale, it demonstrates the modern sensibility and artistic verve that Carr had acquired while studying in France, applied to the subject she loved and which would fuel her throughout her career.

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