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…
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.