Did Emily Carr Really Record the Art of a Dying Race?

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Were Emily Carr's paintings too controversial? Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Were Emily Carr’s paintings too controversial? Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Noble intentions sometimes become romanticized illusions. This can be said for many of the early twentieth-century artists who dedicated their life’s work, their artistic endeavours, to recreate on canvas images of another art form, the dying art form of a dying race: the First Nations of the northwest coast of North America. This can certainly be said of the work of early twentieth-century Canadian artist, Emily Carr (1871-1945).

The thing is, by the early twentieth-century, the First Nations were no longer ‘dying’. In fact, their populations were increasing and they were experiencing a renaissance of artistic expression, notably the totem poles. Carr’s art and intentions were roundly criticized when it came to historical reality, but she maintained her belief in her accuracy to the end.

Who was Emily Carr?

Among Carr’s greatest achievements are her paintings of the totem poles of the northwest coast of British Columbia. Her love for the First Nations’ people was genuine, if perhaps eccentric and misguided. We can only understand her attitude towards the First Nations and her depiction of their art forms in context with the times in which she lived and the attitudes which governed society’s view of the First Nations.

After all, Carr grew up in the colonial town of Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. It was a community where the British population reigned superior over all other races (at least they believed that they were superior) and no matter how hard Carr tried, she could never totally annihilate this biased upbringing.

This stiff ‘upper-lip’ society looked down on artists in general, and particularly looked down on women artists, especially those who associated with non-British, particularly the First Nations. Carr strove to overcome these prejudices, to make her mark on the world as an outstanding artist, but also to demonstrate in her work, due reverence to the art of another group of people: the First Nations.

Noble Intentions?

Emily Carr truly believed that she was honouring the First Nations by undertaking the task of documenting the art of the First Nations.  She really believed that she was spiritually equal to the First Nations’ artists.  She also felt that, as an artist herself, she could relate to the artistic spirit of the First Nation’s people who created these magnificent totem poles.  She was an artist paying tribute, in a sense, to another group of artists who just happened to be artists of the First Nations.

She wrote in her journal in preparation for her 1913 Lecture on Totems, “My object in making this collection of totem pole pictures has been to depict these wonderful relics of a passing people in their own original setting: the identical spots where they were carved and placed by the Indians in honour of their chiefs.  These poles are fast becoming extinct, each year sees some of their number fall, rotted with age; others bought and carried off to Museums in various parts of the world; others, alas, burnt down for firewood.  In some instances the Indians are becoming ashamed of them, fearing that the white people whom they are anxious to resemble will regard them as paganish and will laugh at them and thus they are likely to burn them down.”

Unfortunately, as was the case with Carr, one’s intentions, no matter how noble, are always misinterpreted by others, criticized and even condemned.  To many art critics and First Nations’ historians, her patronizing depiction of the First Nations’ art failed to dispel the racial biases projected by her own society and her own upbringing.

Perhaps her greatest failing in her paintings of First Nations’ images was her strong statement of intent which she upheld until the day she died.  It was this intent to record the art of a ‘dying race’ that has earned her the most criticism. This ‘dying race’ theme was  neither unique nor accurate in the early twentieth century when Carr began visiting the First Nations villages. It was a nineteenth century fad that influenced artists and writers both in Europe and in North America, artists who sought a perfection and a beauty that they could not find in their own cultures.

By the early 1900s, Carr’s ‘dying race’ was, in fact, a growing and thriving culture which just happened to have many historically interesting villages which had long been deserted for larger First Nations’ communities.

Carr’s vision of a ‘dying race’

Totem poles in a northern British Columbia community. Photo taken by Emily-Jane Hills Orford. Used with permission.

Totem poles in a northern British Columbia community. Photo taken by Emily-Jane Hills Orford. All rights reserved.

Carr provides no documentation to support her mission statement. She used bits and pieces of information that she has heard from other people who have visited the First Nations villages or from the guides who have taken her to various villages during her summer travels.  These tidbits of information make for interesting   reading   but   they also clearly show Carr’s naïveté towards her ‘mission’.

Perhaps that is her greatest error.  Had she merely painted totem poles because they pleased her visually, then the historian would need only to discuss Carr’s painting.  But, by persistently referring to her mission of recording a ‘dying race’, through her writings and her public lectures and by discussing the First Nations art as if she were a qualified historian, the artist has set herself up for criticism.

Her paintings on their own hold merit.  But as a ‘documentation’ of the First Nations’ art, these works now require interpretation of content and credibility.

By the 1930s, Carr’s historic record is greatly overshadowed by the ‘romantic’ expression of herself, the artist.  By this time, her paintings were works of art which just happened to include some images from the First Nations’ works of art.

She painted with rich colours and deep shadows in the totem pole images that suggested a far greater depth in the carving than was actually in the totems themselves. In effect, she sculpted the totem image on canvas, using brush and paint to create her own vision of the symbols that she discovered on the actual totem poles.

The artist in Carr also sought to present an artistic composition by arranging the totems to create greater depth of field, more shadows and a more romantic vision of her perceived ‘dying’ art form. As a consequence, Carr’s claim of documentation had fallen into the typical trap of other Euro-Canadian artists. It was a recurring theme of ‘western historicizing’.

First Nations historian, Marcia Crosby writes, challenging Carr’s authenticity and intent. “I do not believe that Carr could have possibly had “a profound understanding” of the many nations of native people who have inhabited the Northwest Coast during her time. If she did forge a deep bond with an imaginary, homogeneous heritage, it was with something that acted as a container for her Eurocentric beliefs, her search for a Canadian identity and her artistic intentions.

Other artists supported and understood Carr’s intent. Vancouver artist, Jack Shadbolt (1909-1998) wrote (as quoted by his wife, Doris Shadbolt) that Carr’s work represented “powerful and brooding evocations of tragedy in the dying culture of the abandoned Indian villages with the romantic grandeur of their remnant standing against the overwhelming wilderness.” For Carr, Shadbolt and others like A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974), A.J. Casson (1898-1992) and E.J. Hughes (1913-2007), it was a symbolic mythology, one that was romantic in itself.

Emily Carr’s Work: Art or History?

Since Carr’s intent was to make an historic record, it should follow that one could study her paintings and understand the imagery of the totem poles; be able to appreciate the unique carving skills of different distinct First Nations communities; and be able to read the stories told through these images.

Perhaps this can be done in some of Carr’s early totem pole paintings. But her later works, like Kitwancool (1928), with its lush colours and swirling contours of buildings and totem poles and the rich forests beyond, is a romanticized image at best of the northern British Columbia village of Kitwancool.

By the time Carr painted Kitwancool, she was beginning to show a greater interest in the natural world around her, particularly the great rainforests that had escaped massive clear-cut logging. Her study of the rainforests paralleled her interest in the First Nations’ totem poles and the connection between the two, the importance of one to the other, became evident in her predominate use of intense shades of green in her totem pole paintings from the late 1920s on.

Connecting the totem poles to the forests from whence they came became part of Carr’s artistic statement of preservation. She also painted images of landscape desecrated by clear-cut logging. These works were painted sparsely in dull colours, particularly shades of brown, with an intense blue sky overshadowing the entire image.

Her theme of preservation at this point had gone beyond the initial concept of preserving the art of a ‘dying’ race. Preservation had developed into an all-encompassing theme and the accuracy of the totem pole images was no longer relevant. Hence the use of stronger brushstrokes and intense colours (mostly colours of nature: luscious greens and intensely rich browns), with a greater interest in composition (the placement of the totems within the painting) than the actual totem itself. The artist in Carr had taken over from the historian (if one could say that she ever was one).

Emily Carr: Controversial Artist

Regardless of the Eurocanadian’s statement of intent, the result of borrowing the images of the First Nations’ art was controversial. One might then ask: is it ever considered appropriate or acceptable for a non-First Nations’ person to represent First Nations’ people and their art and culture in their own works of art?

Self-interest and personal gains motivated many Euro-North Americans to invest in the art of the First Nations either as collector or as an artist. It is not clear whether or not Carr’s motives were influenced by the fame and success of other artists who painted First Nations’ totem poles.

Even if this were the case initially, it is evident by Carr’s persistence to pursue her mission in spite of her lack of fame and fortune that her intentions were well-motivated if perhaps misinformed and misguided. Her art, her paintings, stand as a testament to an artist who loved her landscape (the great rainforest of British Columbia) and that art of its people (the First Nations).

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