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Blunden Harbour

Blunden Harbour, c.1930
oil on canvas
129.8 x 93.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1937

Kwakwaka'wakw Village of Ba'a's (Blunden Harbour)

Kwakwaka'wakw Village of Ba'a's (Blunden Harbour), 1901
Photograph by C. F. Newcombe
Royal BC Museum, PN 258

(shapes of human parts)

(shapes of human parts), 1929
graphite on paper
15.0 x 23.8 cm
British Columbia Archives

(totem pole)

(totem pole), 1929
graphite on paper
15.0 x 23.8 cm
British Columbia Archives

Making the West Coast Modern


Students study Emily Carr's First Nations imagery and consider Carr as a modern artist.

Description of Activity:

Students discuss what it means to be a modern artist, using Carr's words, paintings and drawings as a guide.


1 session, 60 minutes

Background Information for Teachers:

In 1929, Emily Carr published an essay in the McGill News outlining her views on First Nations art and its relevance to her work. Her essay "Modern and Indian Art of the West Coast" argues that: "the oldest art in Canada, that of her native Indians, is by far the most ‘modern' in spirit of anything in western Canada. The usual term applied to it by local critics is grotesque; they do not understand its bigger significance."

A new admiration for the art of African, Oceanic and First Nations peoples informed the work of many artists in Europe, where Carr had trained as a young woman. Her identification of First Nations art as "modern in spirit" reflects a body of ideas referred to today as primitivism. Europeans interested in primitivism believed that the art of indigenous peoples revealed a fundamental understanding about artistic composition that they could learn from. While these ideas are no longer accepted because of the far-reaching assumptions that they make, for Carr and her colleagues primitivism offered a new way to think about the essential truths that they tried to convey in their work.

To learn more about Emily Carr's interest in First Nations imagery, click:
Early Totems (1911-1913)
Modernism and Late Totems (1927-1932)

Preparation for Teachers:

  • Read the excerpt from Carr's autobiography Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr, describing what first attracted her to First Nations art. See the excerpt (see Appendix) following this activity.
  • Examine Carr's painting Blunden Harbour, c.1930 and compare it to a photograph of Blunden Harbour taken by C.F. Newcombe in 1901.
  • Examine Carr's drawings (shapes of human parts), 1929, and (totem pole), 1929, which illustrate how she applied modernist ideas to First Nations figures.

Materials for Students:


Part I

  • Ask students to consider how modern art differs from traditional art. Is the difference in the way the works of art are made? The colours? The subject being depicted? Record students' answers.
  • Read students Carr's description of how looking at First Nations art made her work more modern. How does this statement compare to students' ideas about what makes a work of art modern?
  • Show students Blunden Harbour, c.1930. Have them describe what they see. Compare Carr's interpretation of Blunden Harbour to the photograph of the area by C.F. Newcombe taken in 1901. How are the two images similar? How are they different?
  • Explain that both Carr's painting and Newcombe's photograph show welcome poles, erected to greet guests. These particular poles are from a Kwakwaka'wakw village on the Northwest Coast.
  • How does Blunden Harbour relate to Carr's verbal description? How is it an example of the "loosening" that Carr describes in her work after her exposure to First Nations art?

Part II

  • Show students reproductions of Carr's drawing (shapes of human parts), 1929, and her (totem pole), 1929.
  • Ralph Pearson's book How to See Modern Pictures, published in 1928, was a huge influence on Carr. Pearson wrote that everything in nature could and should be broken down into basic geometric shapes in order to reveal its inner truth. How did Carr use Pearson's ideas in Blunden Harbour? What shapes did she use to represent the totem poles? What shapes did she use to capture other aspects of the landscape?
  • When Pearson wrote about "inner truth," he was referring to the more spiritual, less visible, aspects of a subject. Ask students: Does this painting seem spiritual? Why or why not? Discuss.


  • Ask students if their impression of modern art is the same after looking at Carr's work. How would they describe modern art now?

Appendix: Quote from Emily Carr