Legacy and Influence

Emily Carr died in 1945 with the years of her greatest artistic production long behind her. At the time of her death she was well regarded within the Canadian art community, yet the acclaim she experienced in her lifetime nowhere near compares to the esteem in which she is held today. She is a bona fide tourist attraction for both Vancouver and Victoria, part of the elementary school curriculum, a significant figure in the Canadian art historical canon and the subject of a steady stream of exhibitions. Carr's life and work continue to interest and captivate new generations, and the public seems to have an insatiable desire for all things Carr. Curator John O'Brian refers to this "public deification" as "Carromania" in his introduction to the Mendel Art Gallery catalogue Gasoline, Oil, and Paper.1 Emily Carr has become an integral component of Canadian culture, and study and speculation on her life and career continue.

Recently, Carr has become known to international audiences through exhibitions of her art outside Canada and the translation of her writing into foreign languages. She is included in exhibitions that celebrate and examine the work of early North American modernists, and within Canada she seems to be forever tied to the artistic output and legacy of the Group of Seven. Yet on the west coast, her art production has had a more profound and enduring influence.

Carr introduced modernism to the west coast, and subsequent generations are indebted to her for creating an image of British Columbia tied to the spirituality of its wilderness, one that artists continue to use as a frame of reference. Jack Shadbolt, who knew Carr in the late years of her career, titled his 1971 exhibition at the Bau-xi Gallery Hornby Suite (Homage to Emily Carr), revealing her lingering presence nearly thirty years after her death. The landscape artist David Alexander went so far as to title a piece (painted almost entirely in a Carr-like green hue) Emily, You're Almost Off My Back.2 Her ability to capture the beauty and spirituality of the landscape has solidified her position as a founding figure in Canadian art.

The Vancouver artist and critic Jeff Wall spoke of Carr's legacy in a lecture he delivered at the Witte de With in Rotterdam; he referred to Carr as the "originary figure in modern art" in British Columbia, "representative of traditions in which all of us who work there are in some way or other involved."3 Although more than half a century has passed since her death, any artist who engages with the west coast must contend with her legacy. Her art remains relevant because the changing nature of the landscape continues to occupy the interest of many contemporary west coast artists.

Though her place in the history of modernism and her contribution to landscape art are clear, the legacy of Carr's Aboriginal imagery is more divisive. Her depiction of abandoned and decaying poles and villages increasingly devoid of human life imparted the impression of a dying culture. From today's perspective, this well-intended but naïve approach to documenting the negative impact of colonialism is problematic, playing a part in the "construction of the imaginary Indian," and is subject to the same criticism directed at any of her contemporaries who engaged in cultural appropriation as a component of their art practice.4 Scholars have charged Carr with appropriation because she used Native imagery and motifs although, according to Marcia Crosby, "[she] could [not] have possibly had 'a profound understanding' of the many nations of native people who inhabited the Northwest Coast during her time."5 This complicates Carr's legacy: it suggests that she played a role in disseminating the colonial attitudes with which British Columbia is still contending.

Filmed in the early 1990s, "The Art of Emily Carr" Heritage Minute that airs on Canadian television stations perpetuates this myth, portraying Carr as an artist on a solitary quest to expose hidden and forgotten First Nations carvings. Scholars and educators treated this image rather uncritically until First Nations art historians began to approach the Carr legacy from a different perspective, initiating an intense debate regarding the correct interpretation of her work.6 Though Carr cannot be entirely faulted for adopting the prevalent ideology of her time, this aspect of her legacy should be acknowledged and considered alongside the image of Carr as friend and supporter of First Nations people.

Carr's legacy is also embroiled in gendered interpretations that have created space for her within the feminist art history canon. She is secure in her status as Canada's most famous female artist, and it is a matter of conjecture whether her place in history would have been so firmly fixed had she not been a woman. Her defiance of gender prescriptions at a time when marriage and domesticity were expected has clearly contributed to her enduring significance. The reclamation of Carr by feminist art historians has introduced her work to a new international audience through inclusion in important group shows such as Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own. Her interest in female mythological figures, nature, spirituality and the sexual imagery that Doris Shadbolt has identified in her late landscape paintings have continued to incite gendered readings of her work.7

By ensuring the publication of most of her writings posthumously, Carr played a significant role in her own mythologization. She contrived Emily Carr the solitary figure who realized her artistic achievements independently while overcoming numerous obstacles, and this is the image that continues to influence interpretations of her life and work.

Although her appropriation of Aboriginal culture, her romantic view of the west coast landscape and her supposed marginalization may be regarded with a critical eye, her place within the modernist movement and her position as a fundamental figure in the development of west coast art remains secure.

1 David Alexander and John O'Brian, Gasoline, Oil, and Paper: The 1930s Oil-on-Paper Paintings of Emily Carr (Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1995), p. 7.
2 Alexander and O'Brian, Gasoline, Oil, and Paper, p. 12.
3 Jeff Wall, "Traditions and Counter-Traditions in Vancouver Art: A Deeper Background for Ken Lum's Work," The Lectures (Imshchoot, uitgeveres: Witte de With, 1990), p. 67.
4 Marcia Crosby, "Construction of the Imaginary Indian," Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, ed. Stan Douglas (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991), p. 274.
5 Crosby, "Construction of the Imaginary Indian," p. 278.
6 See Crosby and Gerta Moray, "Wilderness, Modernity and Aboriginality in the Paintings of Emily Carr," Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 1998, for two different interpretations of Carr's First Nations imagery.
7 Doris Shadbolt refers to the "pervasive sexual energy" in Carr's late landscape works. See Doris Shadbolt, Emily Carr (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990), p. 205.