Emily Carr: a Canadian Lesson on Nature

Some works by Canadian artists are exhibited at Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest show “Drawing Attention” alongside drawings from European master painters. Their acute look at nature hints at something we’d better make a point of…

In the forest painting

Emily Carr, In the Forest - 1935

The Canadian artist Emily Carr‘s paintings have not been seen in London since her exhibiton at the Barbican in 1990.
Her name and work are scarcely known to the  public on this side of the ocean, although she is considered in her own country a “Canadian icon”, as reported in the Canadian Encyclopaedia.

I happened to discover her while visiting the current exhibition “Drawing Attention” at the Dulwich Picture Gallery,  featuring Selected Works on Paper from the Renaissance to Modernism from the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The exhibition is a unique synoptic journey in the western history of drawing, from XV century Italy to international modernity.

Marvellous figure sketches by the likes of Guercino and Annibale Carracci are exhibited alongside detailed works of Dutch and Flemish Art, while the XVIII and XIX century French and British achievements in watercolour are followed by a rich overview of works from the past century’s major draftsmen, such as Schiele, Kandinsky and Pollock.

It is just in the last room, opposite a mixed media, dark drawing by Henry Moore and an inked-sketched Head of a Man by Picasso, that the Canadian artists are exhibited – five little works on paper and on board – strongly associated by a different view on a different world. It is the Group of Seven, a circle of Canadian landscape painters working in the 1920s.

My interest on Emily Carr, for a while part of this group, is awakened not only because she was a woman artist living  far-away from the cultural mainstream in the beginning of the 20th century (curiosity and esteem are due, as with Frida Khalo and Georgia O’Keeffe) but also because of the vivid energy and a special kind of breath emerging from the nature she depicts.

Nature, one of the main subjects of her works, emerges from her tree trunks, freely depicted in green and blue, as forceful, spiritual and powerfully alive.

Fascinated by the strength of the natural world of her native British Columbia, and deeply inspired by the culture and art of the indigenous people of the Pacific North East coast, she expresses Nature with transcendental qualities. Air, trees, leaves and soil are intensely reproduced in open brush strokes and rendered from particular viewpoints that conceive an idea of intense immersion in the mystery and soul of the silent forests.

It is probably this closeness to nature and this uncanny self expression within a physical and psychological immersion in a preserved environment, that strikes me when standing in front of  her work . I felt the same pleasure of discovery I recently felt in front of the little, fresh creations by Grandma Moses, in the Folk Art section at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

Beyond Carr, it was most likely the essential forms of the barren landscape in the Franklin Carmichael’s Snow Clouds, and the impressive atmosphere of the Carl Shaefer’s Storm over the Fields that abruptly reminded me of how far we, western cities’ modern inhabitants, are from that respectful, conscious and still surprised kind of feeling for the nature around us. Unlike the American Romantics, who expressed the astonishing vastness of American landscape (let’s think of Albert Bierstadt), here we confront an intimate and near religious relationship with nature, delivered with a very personal touch.

Considering the big climate threats of our times, caused by men’s altered relationship with nature, these artists from the other side of the Ocean have undoubtedly a lot to tell us.

About this article

Anna Maria Di Brina

About Anna Maria Di Brina

Anna has worked as book editor for Publishing Houses and as freelance art journalist in Italy. Now she is bringing up her two little daughters and trying to put her finger on living in (South) London.
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  1. Emiliano 11 Dec 2009

    The pleasure of the reading equals the will to go and see this special exihibition.

  2. Jenny Sweeney 16 Dec 2009

    I discovered the Group of Seven when living in Canada for a few years. I felt the same immediate attraction to the directness and the use of colour with which they portray the Canadian wilderness – they do have alot to tell us.
    There will be a talk on the Group of Seven at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 10 February by Ian Dejardin, the Director. See their website for details.

  3. kate knowles 16 Dec 2009

    Dulwich Picture Gallery is the only European gallery that is specializing in American exhibitions – and now we are going to extend the brief to Canadian exhibitions – and the Group of Seven will be the first. Winslow Homer – no one had heard of him in Britian – one of America’s most famous artists – made a huge splash when we showed his sea paintings here, and since then we’ve done Saul Steinbeck and so on. Good old Dulwich for being so original… but they aren’t cheap to put on as all the pictures have to come from the States. so.. join the Friends who give us thousands of £s a year. It all helps.

  4. Ian Dejardin 18 Dec 2009

    One of the many remarkable things about Emily Carr that I have discovered is that, wonderful artist that she is, she is also an astonishingly good writer. Again, because Canada is Canada and they like to keep their geniuses to themselves (I think that’s it anyway!), few people over here will have read her. But every Canadian child does – her books, such as Klee Wyck and The Book of Small, are part of the curriculum over there. They are, like her paintings, magic – definitely worth searching the internet for. She was never actually one of the Group of Seven, although she was invited. Lawren Harris, who was in the Group, played an important role in her career, encouraging her to find her own brand of spirituality in the forests of British Columbia. Previously, she had played an important role in recording the fast-disappearing culture of the native peoples, with whom she had a profound bond. And there is nothing homegrown or parochial about her painting, either – she travelled to Europe, and knew her Post-Impressionists. An astonishing woman; a remarkable life.

  5. Judy Mewburn 19 Dec 2009

    This exhibition is drawing accolades from all quarters. Whatever your preference there is a drawing here that will entrance you. I can only say I am really looking forward to seeing the Group of Seven again, I saw them when I was in Canada two years ago and a more dynamic , original and colourful selection of paintings you have yet to see. Happy Christmas ! Judy


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