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Four Pictures by Emily Carr

by Nicolas Debon

Emily Carr: At the Edge of the World

by Jo Ellen Bogart, Maxwell Newhouse, illus.

These two new books on Emily Carr couldn’t have taken more different approaches. Jo Ellen Bogart’s Emily Carr: At the Edge of the World is the more traditional – a crisply written biography, filled with well-chosen detail that takes us from Carr’s birth in 1871 to her death in 1945. In Four Pictures by Emily Carr, French-born illustrator Nicolas Debon attempts to capture the essence of Carr’s life and talent in comic book form, focusing on four formative events in her life. Each story opens with a pithy set-up paragraph and a Carr painting from the salient point in her life. Interestingly, these four key events are also pivotal moments in the Bogart biography, which, with its longer text, provides a great deal more context for them.

Debon begins his portrait of Carr when she’s 27, embarking on her first of many trips to the West Coast of Vancouver Island “to paint the Indian way of life” at a mission in Uclulet. Debon’s cartoons, done in gouache and India ink, have a muted sepia quality, filled with the earth tones common in Carr’s work. Debon quickly establishes Carr as an unconventional woman, free of the typical prejudices of her time. Because of her open, humorous temperament, the natives nicknamed her Klee Wyck, the laughing one. By the end of the episode, Debon shows Carr developing her lifelong affinity with the native lifestyle and the West Coast landscape.

Bogart opens her biography with Carr as a child – wisely, since this book is aimed, after all, at young readers, who might well forge a stronger connection with the artist by first seeing her as a “robust and lively” girl, guilty of “improper behaviour” and precocious enough to build her own easel from cherry tree branches. Folk artist Maxwell Newhouse supplies airy, whimsical pen-and-ink line drawings that provide a nice contrast to the brooding intensity of Carr’s oils. Each spread is adorned with one of Carr’s paintings, chosen to correspond with the facing text, and a Newhouse line drawing. We learn that Carr’s parents both died when she was a teenager, and though she was forbidden to travel to Europe to study art, she was permitted to attend art school in San Francisco for three years. Returning home, she taught art classes to children.

Like Debon, Bogart highlights Carr’s first sketching trip amongst the native people, but adds an interesting detail. The purser of the boat that carried her to Uclulet fell in love with Carr and wooed her for two years (even later venturing to England to press his suit). But Carr turned him down repeatedly. Like L.M. Montgomery, she knew her art was her true love; unlike Montgomery, she was alone to the end. She lived life on her own terms, all of her days. And some of those days were very hard indeed.

In his second episode, Debon leaps ahead to 1910 with Carr, age 39, unhappily studying art in Paris. She was fed up with her unappreciative teachers, unmoved by the beauties of Paris, and bored by the classical paintings that filled the galleries. Yet it was in Paris that Carr was introduced to the post-Impressionists who later informed her own style. Debon concludes with Carr in hospital, suffering from headaches and exhaustion, lamenting, “My painting is not going anywhere – I feel as though I’ve gone stale.”

With her broader brush, Bogart paints a more detailed picture of Carr’s life around this time. A picture begins to emerge of a woman who languished in cities, away from her home landscape. Prior to Paris, Carr studied art in London from 1899 to 1904. Here too, she felt enervated, and even after fleeing to coastal St. Ives, “the noise and glare of the seashore were too much for her….”

Here, one begins to question Carr’s mental stability. She began to “stutter and limp, to suffer headaches and nausea” and “spent fourteen unhappy months” in an English sanatorium. Fourteen months? Was Carr merely homesick and over-tired, or was she suffering from some form of clinical illness or depression? Debon does not pursue this point, though Bogart later comments that Carr was “a sensitive, even difficult person, [and] her moods over the years grew darker.”

In his third episode, Debon brings Carr back to Victoria where her modernist art was greeted with indifference, and she all but abandoned it. Instead she sold crafts to tourists, raised dogs, and clothed her pet monkey, Woo, in hand-made dresses and pushed her around town in a wicker pram. Victoria, doubtless, has never been as interesting since. But a turning point came in 1927 with a visit from the director of the National Gallery of Canada, scouting for a show on native art and culture. So impressed was he with Carr’s work that he shipped 50 pieces to Ottawa, and gave her a train ticket to attend the exhibit. En route, Carr met the Group of Seven in Toronto, and saw in their work a similarity to, and validation of, her own. She also formed a friendship with Lawren Harris, whose work and friendship invigorated and inspired her for the rest of her life. She decided to start painting again.

Bogart covers Carr’s “lost years” between 1912 and 1927 more fully, elaborating on her eccentric personality. Carr, for instance, liked to keep her chairs hauled to the ceiling on pulleys, to discourage unwanted visitors from staying. Presumably she had few “wanted” visitors for she had trouble maintaining friendships. Certainly she was a misanthrope, preferring the company of animals and nature to people. Bogart also gives us more descriptive information on Carr’s painterly style, citing influences by the neo-Fauvists and Cubists.

After her well-received show at the National Gallery, Carr embarked on a period of huge productivity. Under Lawren Harris’s mentorship, she moved away from native themes and embraced pure landscape as her subject matter. Bogart chronicles Carr’s successes through the 1930s, when her art was widely exhibited both at home and abroad, and she had the money and freedom to buy a gypsy caravan and move about from location to location, painting. Bogart takes Carr right up to her death, but not before briefly touching on her fascinating secondary career as best-selling author and winner of the Governor General’s Award.

Of the two biographies, Bogart’s Emily Carr: At the Edge of the World offers more information, so we get a fuller sense of Carr’s life and career. However, Debon’s approach is the more original, and certainly the more formally appropriate, since he is telling the story of a visual artist visually, cleverly emulating Carr’s palette, and immersing us in the landscapes that informed Carr’s art.

Interestingly, both books single out Carr’s 1935 painting “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky” as perhaps her fullest and most ecstatic expression of herself and her art. While Bogart provides a reverential and fitting eulogy for Carr, it’s hard to beat Debon’s fabulous concluding double-page spread, in which Carr sets out through the forest, beholds the tall trees that inspired this particular painting, and becomes utterly absorbed into her own artistic landscape.