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A Skidegate Beaver Pole

A Skidegate Beaver Pole, 1941-1942
oil on canvas
86.0 x 76.3 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Masset Bears

Masset Bears, c.1941
oil on canvas
101.4 x 44.9 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

A Skidegate Poled

A Skidegate Pole, 1941-1942
oil on canvas
87.0 x 76.5 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust


Forsaken, 1937
oil on canvas
119.1 x 76.5 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust


Clearing, 1942
oil on canvas
68.6 x 111.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1955

Cedar Sanctuary

Cedar Sanctuary, c.1942
oil on paper
91.5 x 61.0 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Final Period (1939-1942)

As the 1930s came to an end, Emily Carr, advanced in years and not in good health, began to divide her time between her art and her nascent literary career. Although Klee Wyck, her first book, was not published until 1941, Carr began in the early 1930s to mould her memories into short literary sketches. In 1937 she suffered a heart attack and during her convalescence devoted all her energy to writing, which she could do in bed. She recovered sufficiently to resume painting, but was frail and could only work from existing sketch material and her recollections. In writing Klee Wyck, her reminiscences of time spent in First Nations villages, Carr found a renewed interest in Aboriginal subject matter. She wrote to Nan Cheney in May 1941, "going over the Indian Sketches has stirred up a homesickness for Indian."1

I have been having a kind of general regurgitation of my work preparatory to moving. Everything has had to be cleaned and sorted in a general review of thoughts that had shaped themselves into sketches and sketches that had shaped themselves into canvases. I've done an immense amount of work. In looking back I can see the puckerings of preparation for ideas that burst later and bore fruit, little brown acorns that cracked their shells and made little scrub thickets full of twists, and a few that made some fairly good oaks. Tired though I am, I want to start working again. The afterlooks at some things have made me anxious to wriggle out of that particular rut and try another.

– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 881.

Carr returned to Aboriginal themes but approached the material with the techniques and vision that she had developed over the previous decade. The five works she produced embody all of the themes and issues with which she struggled throughout her career.2 Using the same sketch material that was the foundation of her earlier totems, Carr abandoned the formalized, geometric designs that were prevalent in her work during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Now she sought to infuse her canvases with the light, movement and space that figured so prominently in her landscape paintings of the 1930s.

Rather than being the focal point of the canvases, the poles have become elements of a greater story and a more ambitious composition. Carr's brushstrokes are much lighter than in her formal period, and her colour palette is less sombre and deep. Forsaken, one of the first canvases she painted while recovering from her heart attack in 1937, marks her return to First Nations imagery. Though the title and the dense undergrowth are reminiscent of her late-1920s themes of abandonment and despair, the light shining down on the pole suggests a more optimistic message of perseverance and longevity. Forsaken also incorporates many of the methods Carr employed throughout her career to depict the forest. The overlapping geometric tree forms evoke her formal period, while the rolling hills and the freer, less designed foliage are drawn from her landscape work.

Carr once again explored the relationship between the natural environment and totems, but with a noticeably different perspective than what is discernible in studies such as Strangled by Growth (1931) and Vanquished (c.1931). The bleak, menacing tone is gone, replaced with a serene sense of coexistence. The imagery of abandoned poles being strangled by aggressive foliage gives way to a mood of tranquility and peace: the relationship is no longer antagonistic.

A Skidegate Pole (1941-42) and A Skidegate Beaver Pole (1941-42) both feature a single large totem pole surrounded by rolling hills and a light, swirling sky. Pole, sky and foliage are seamlessly fused as one; no element is more important than another. The rhythm of the sky and the landscape clashes with the solidity of the pole, a juxtaposition that is not entirely successful. Although the colour of the totem and foliage in A Skidegate Pole is dark, Carr introduces light behind the totem to invoke a spiritual presence. Compared to the 1912 oil based on similar source material, this work demonstrates how far Carr had progressed by the conclusion of her career. The early work is much less intense and powerful than the later canvas, and Carr's handling of the landscape is decorative and ineffectual.

In A Skidegate Beaver Pole, the totem and the houses are partially concealed and are floating, not drowning, in the rolling landscape—a subtle change from earlier works. Although its base is invisible, the pole looms large over the scene, seemingly unthreatened by the undergrowth. This work also has a corresponding oil from 1912, which appears static and factual by comparison. Carr's introduction of movement into the later canvas completely alters the mood and the expressive power of the pole and its relation to the natural world.

Lawren and Bess came in today. Lawren pulled out a lot of canvases but his crits were not illuminating, although they were full of admiration and appreciation... I observed that he turned back to former canvases with epithets like "swell," "grand," "beautiful," and the later canvases he was perhaps more silent over. I wonder if the work is weakening and petering out. Perhaps so. I feel myself that the angles is [sic] slightly different. Perhaps the former was more vigorous, more disciplined, but I think the later is more thoughtful. I know it is less static. Perhaps the static was more in line with his present abstract viewpoint. He was enthusiastic enough and complimentary — but not enlightening. Praise half as warm many years ago would have made me take off into the sky with delight. Now I distrust criticism. It seems to be of so little worth. People that know little talk much and folk that know halt, wondering, self-conscious about their words. Perhaps the best thing I got out of this visit of the Harrises was a calm looking with impartial eyes at what Lawren pulled out of my racks, things I had almost forgotten that stirred my newer and older thoughts together in my mind and made me try to amalgamate them.

– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 890.

In 1942, with the help of Ira Dilworth, Carr went on her final sketching trip to Mount Douglas Park. The results were her late landscape paintings, The Clearing, Cedar, Quiet and Cedar Sanctuary, all produced in 1942. These canvases restate the vision of the west coast landscape that Carr worked on throughout her career. In their serenity and calm, they possess neither the dark antagonism nor ebullient joy that had characterized her earlier work. Cedar and Quiet are distinct for the absence of light and sky; instead, Carr uses numerous gradations of green to depict the dense forest. These canvases are also different from her mid-1930s work, in which the sky predominates, more reminiscent of her earlier tree studies but without their geometric designs.

It is possible that this new tone of Carr's work has much to do with her own improved disposition. Toward the end of her career, she slowly began to receive acclaim and to enjoy commercial success, and she had more close friendships than at any other point in her life.

In 1945, while preparing for her annual exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Carr was overwhelmed by exhaustion. She checked herself into a nursing home for rest. Less than a week later, she suffered a heart attack and died on March 2, 1945.

1 Doreen Walker, ed., Dear Nan: Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1990), pp. 326–27.
2 A Skidegate Beaver Pole (1941–42), Masset Bears (1941), Laughing Bear (1941), Skidegate Pole (1941–42), Forsaken (1937).