Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Tree as Life


"There's a row of pine trees that won't leave me alone.
They are straight across the field from the van.
Second growth, pointed, fluffy and thick."

Emily Carr

The Canadian artist Emily Carr painted trees; she painted lots of trees from the forests of British Columbia, as metaphor and form trees are a central motive in her work.

As the Guardian newspaper’s Laura Cumming said in her recent review of Carr’s Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition From Forest to Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia. “Dulwich has more than a hundred paintings and drawings on show, but these forests are the peak – the pitch – of them all. It feels as if the great firs, oaks and spruces, the birches and maples of British Columbia are Carr’s own private totem poles. They have force of personality for her, with their uprushing trunks and dancing boughs, and their enduring, towering masses. Forests are like cities in her art, places where humanity comes together, even though there is never another person in sight.

Along with her trees, Carr also painted the totem poles of regions first inhabitants along with aspects of their lives that has seen her in recent years fated as a chronicler of a disappearing lifestyle. About which she wrote "It must be understood, that my collection of Indian pictures was not done in a comfortable studio. You have got to go out and wrestle with the elements, with all your senses alert...You have got to hold your nose against the smell of rotten fish, and you've got to have the creeps. You must learn to feel the pride of the Indian in his ancestors, and the pinch of the cold, raw damp of the West Coast, and the smell and flavor of the wood smoke, and the sting of it in your eyes."

Her formative artistic education was in the traditional English still life and landscape style which she studied in San Francisco and England. In her late 30’s Carr spent a year in France and came away a dedicated post impressionist. Upon her return to Vancouver Carr she embarked upon a six week trip through British Columbia which resulted in a series of works in her new French style which were poorly received.

For the next 15 years Carr produced very little until her inclusion in a National Gallery of Canada exhibition when she was in her mid 50’s. This saw her become an ex-officio member of the Group of Seven whose support saw her embark on the most productive period of her artistic life.

It also saw her move on from her Indian paintings to embrace the landscape in general and trees in particular as her subject matter.  With a camper van named “the elephant” Carr traveled on sketching trips throughout British Columbia producing work that increasingly embraced the abstract.  

After her first heart attack at 66 Carr added the literary to her artistic output producing seven books, four of which were published posthumously. Although she continued to paint, with one of her last paintings Cedar Sanctuary being completed just 3 years before her death.

And as she wrote whilst recovering from her second heart attack “I think I shall start new growth, not the furious forcing of young growth but a more leisurely expansion, fed from maturity, like topmost boughs reflecting the blue of the sky." 

Her exhibition From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario until the 9th of August.


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