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Sawmills, Vancouver

Sawmills, Vancouver, c.1912
oil on canvas
36.0 x 45.5 cm
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern, Dominion Gallery, Montreal

Totem Poles, Kitseukla

Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912
oil on canvas
126.8 x 98.4 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Founders' Fund


Cumshewa, 1912
watercolour and graphite on wove paper, mounted on cardboard
52.0 x 75.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1953


Tanoo, Q.C.I., 1913
oil on canvas
110.5 x 170.8 cm
British Columbia Archives

Indian House Interior with Totems

Indian House Interior with Totems, 1912-1913
oil on canvas
89.6 x 130.6 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Early Totems (1911-1913)

After leaving France confident that her interest in aboriginal culture was appropriate to the principles of the "New Art," Carr was eager to reinvent her existing material using her new French style. Soon after returning to Victoria, Carr again moved to Vancouver. She opened a studio at 1465 West Broadway, where she held an exhibition of her French canvases and watercolours on March 25, 1912. Viewers, ignorant of the radical art being produced in Europe, were shocked by the bold palette and lack of detail in her work. Carr had learned in France that negative reception was to be expected and, for the best and most dedicated artists, was actually a badge of honour. At least initially, she was not discouraged: with this exhibition she had introduced Fauvism to conservative Vancouver society.

In spite of all the insult and scorn shown to my new work I was not ashamed of it. It was neither monstrous, disgusting nor indecent; it had brighter, cleaner colour, simpler form, more intensity. What would Westerners have said of the things exhibited in Paris — nudes, monstrosities, a striving after the extraordinary, the bizarre, to arrest attention. Why should simplification to express depth, breadth and volume appear to the West as indecent, as nakedness? People did not want to see beneath surfaces. The West was ultraconservative. They had transported their ideas at the time of their migration, a generation or two back. They forgot that England, even conservative England, had crept forward since then; but these Western settlers had firmly adhered to their old, old, out-worn methods and, seeing beloved England as it had been, they held to their old ideals... Nevertheless, I was glad I had been to France. More than ever I was convinced that the old way of seeing was inadequate to express this big country of ours, her depth, her height, her unbounded wideness, silences too strong to be broken — nor could ten million cameras, through their mechanical boxes, ever show real Canada. It had to be sensed, passed through live minds, sensed and loved.

– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 437.

Carr continued to paint the Vancouver landscape using her new technique, with its simplification, indifference to detail and bold, visible brushstrokes. In works such as Vancouver Street (c.1912-13) and Sawmills, Vancouver (c.1912), produced shortly after her return from France, Carr applied her painterly French style to local Vancouver cityscapes. The result was quite successful. Carr infused these scenes with the light and energy that characterized her work from France, and they depict her own interpretation of what she saw. In Vancouver Street especially, her vibrant orange and green brushstrokes create form, and the separation between the houses and the streets is deliberately obscure.

Her new approach seemed appropriate for capturing Vancouver street scenes, but her First Nations subjects proved to be a more formidable challenge. In these works her artistic intent clashed with her documentary impulse. Carr began to struggle to reconcile her painterly approach, with its disregard for detail, with her desire to record faithfully the "disappearing" culture of Aboriginal communities.

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, burned 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 paganism and will laugh at them, and they are threatening to burn them down.

– "Lecture on Totems" in Opposite Contraries, p. 177.

In July 1912, Carr embarked on a six-week sketching trip to Alert Bay ('Yalis), along the Skeena River and to the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii). On this trip she made sketches and watercolours that she would use later to create canvases in her studio. Appalled by how badly the carvings had deteriorated since her last visit, Carr became convinced that her new artistic style could not be applied to illustrations of the poles. She did not entirely revert to the documentary impulse, but she reined in her creative expressiveness to represent the poles as accurately as possible. She began once again to paint what she saw in front of her, rather than exploring the significance and expressive power of the totems themselves.

In each of the communities she visited, Carr sketched village scenes that showed many poles while creating studies of individual totems that captured her interest. Totem Poles, Kitseukla (1912) is one such village scene: the lessons that Carr learned in France are discernible in her use of black outlines to give shape to the totemic forms and her gradations in tone. In this work, Carr differentiates the sky from the poles and houses by the application of paint, creating movement with short, painterly brushstrokes. Committed to rendering the poles as accurately as possible, Carr worked in a more expressive style to capture the sky and the foliage, while tending toward realism in her depiction of the poles and houses. Cumshewa (1912) is another good example of her watercolour technique from this period. Her handling of the landscape demonstrates her new, sophisticated approach, but she takes more care to illustrate the particulars of the poles.

Places are so difficult to get at, accommodation always meager, boats very erratic. You must therefore come quickly to your conclusions, select your objects and your view of objects. Time is so precious you dare not stop to rest up or think how tired you are. In places where there is much walking you must shoulder a very heavy pack. The elements always have to be buffeted. Wind, showers, hot sun, incoming tides. Indians satisfied as to why you've come, etc. You must be absolutely honest and true in the depicting of a totem, for meaning is attached to every line; you must be most particular about detail and proportion. I never use the camera nor work from photos; every pole in my collection has been studied from its actual reality in its own original setting and I have, as you might term it, been personally acquainted with every pole shown here.

– "Lecture on Totems" in Opposite Contraries, pp. 194-195.

In her studio she expanded on these field sketches, painting canvases — most of them small — that focus on a single pole. The few surviving notable works from this period, such as Tanoo, Q.C.I. (1913) and Indian House Interior with Totems (c.1912-13), demonstrate a greater ambition. In Tanoo, Carr shows her commitment to elements of her Post-Impressionist style, including short, painterly brushstrokes and a Fauvist colour scheme. She also begins to manipulate the location of the totemic structure within the picture frame for dramatic effect, bringing it closer to the front or sides, or cropping it. Although she uses a thick, black outline to give shape to the totemic forms, the poles are noticeable for their detail. These are interesting transitional works in which Carr's attempt to reconcile her documentary impulse with her artistic ambitions is conspicuous.

In 1913, Carr rented Drummond Hall in Vancouver and held a public exhibition of almost 200 of her new First Nations paintings. The lack of support for her work, both financial and critical, forced her to close her Vancouver studio. She moved back to Victoria, where she planned to build a small apartment house with her share of the family's estate. Her feelings of rejection were compounded by the provincial government's refusal both to finance future trips to coastal villages and to purchase her collection of works to date for their anthropological value. Her use of a Fauve colour palette and manipulation of depth and perspective led the consulting anthropologist to conclude that her work was not an accurate depiction of coast villages.1

Carr's totemic studies from this period were far superior in quality to those she produced before her education in France, yet she still failed to capture the power of the poles and the complexity of the carved animal and human forms. Even her best work from this period appears flat and static compared to her later canvases. She would wait nearly seventeen years before returning to this subject matter and would then finally possess the confidence, the skill and the intent to create bold, powerful paintings.

1 Maria Tippett, Emily Carr: A Biography, (Toronto: Stoddart, 1994), p. 112.