Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is being featured at Vancouver Art Gallery for one more week. Deep Forest exhibition highlights a body of work where Carr focused predominately on the botanical. The paintings are filled with vegetation full of movement and energy flow, with the understory rolling like a river and the trees rising up and turning like human limbs. Carr’s use of dark, rich luxurious greens, reds, blues, browns and greys give immense depth to the work, pulling you in and then enveloping you into the rhythms of the forest. Some pieces fairytalesque – where trees appear to have faces, others engulfed by whirling spirit forces, always moving, often dancing. Powerful cedars full of light, trunks and limbs reaching for the sky, forest openings and pathways through trees, landscapes filled with dark night sky, all capture an essence of living spirit and life blood. Night-time scenes never give the impression that the forest is a scary place to be, more a place of illumination and mystery. Moonlight brushing cedars or pines through the canopy give an added magical quality. Carr was clearly connected to trees, her particular focus being the collective energy and power of the forest as a whole. And that power is a spiritual one, an otherworldly one, and the one that you visit by viewing this exhibition.
Nearly all of Carr’s paintings are owned by the gallery, and have been placed together for this exhibition’s theme. The paintings originate from the early 1930s when the late Emily Carr was living in Victoria, British Columbia and painting the surrounding coastal landscape. For a gallery that must know so much about Carr, it reports very little here, perhaps expecting visitors to be more informed. Emily Carr is after all BC’s most celebrated artist best known for her rendering of First Nation’s totems from the islands of Haida Gwaii. Plant Curator, not being from these parts, would liked to have learnt much more. There is some information; such as the impact of her travels to Europe, and the influence of artists Mark Tobey and Lawren Harris, on her work. The exhibition also notes a meeting between Carr and the artist Georgia O’keeffe. These two women on the surface seem to have much in common. Both women painted during a similar time period, both were independent and front runners for the modernist art movement in their respective countries. Both artists used and then rejected on principle, indigenous cultural artefacts as subject matter. Carr and O’Keeffe spent significant periods of time depicting their own personal vision of nature. Whether one influenced the other is unreported but their stories, at least in retrospect, have many similarities.
Later this year, Emily Carr will have her first solo exhibition in the UK at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. UK readers of Plant Curator will get the chance to visit her work firsthand. Well worth a visit.