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Skidegate

Skidegate, 1928
oil on canvas
61.5 x 46.4 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Kitwancool

Kitwancool, 1928
oil on canvas
83.2 x 101.6 cm
Collection of Glenbow Museum, Purchased, 1955

Big Ravend

Big Raven, 1931
oil on canvas
87.0 x 114.0 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Totem and Fores

Totem and Forest, 1931
oil on canvas
129.3 x 56.2 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Strangled by Growth

Strangled by Growth, 1931
oil on canvas
64.0 x 48.6 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Zunoqua of the Cat Village

Zunoqua of the Cat Village, 1931
oil on canvas
112.2 x 70.1 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust

Modernism and Late Totems (1927-1932)

Having witnessed the boldness of vision of the Group of Seven artists, Emily Carr was determined to infuse her work with equivalent power, emotion and spirituality. In 1928, after selling three of her watercolours to the National Gallery for $75 each, Carr left for an extensive sketching trip in coastal British Columbia.

The work she produced during this time was the most formal and conceptual of her career and the most visibly influenced by external sources. From Lawren Harris, Carr borrowed a limited colour range, emphasis on green and blue hues, smooth geometric shapes and the inclusion of light to symbolize a spiritual presence. Harris also encouraged Carr to read Ralph Pearson's How to See Modern Pictures, a book that emphasized the importance of design and argued that composition and form took precedence over subject matter.1

Mark Tobey, an artist with whom Carr had exhibited in 1924 and 1925 at the Artists of the Pacific Northwest shows in Seattle, came to Victoria in the fall of 1928 and taught an advanced course in her studio. Tobey proved to be an excellent counterpoint to Harris: he was forthcoming with pragmatic advice and was less interested in Carr's spiritual and psychological development.2 When she met Tobey, he was embarked on a period of great experimentation and had begun to adopt a Cubist technique of overlapping planes. He encouraged Carr to incorporate movement in her work, to play with perspective and to move toward semi-abstraction with jagged and disjointed forms. Carr toyed with abstraction, but she never felt comfortable taking her work to its extreme conclusion. Her most experimental charcoal investigations were necessary steps in the development of her own unique vision.

I was not ready for abstraction. I clung to earth and her dear shapes, her density, her herbage, her juice. I wanted her volume, and I wanted to hear her throb. I was tremendously interested in Lawren Harris's abstraction ideas, but I was not yet willing to accept them for myself.

– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 457.

Carr's work from this period is interesting in comparison to her earlier totemic paintings. Here she abandoned the documentary impulse and concentrated instead on recording the emotional and mythological content embedded in the totemic carvings. The painterly, Post-Impressionist style that had characterized her work for almost two decades was replaced with highly stylized and semi-abstract geometric forms.

Skidegate (1928), painted from earlier sketch material soon after her trip to the east, captures this pivotal moment in her career. Although clearly influenced by the work she had seen in Ontario, Skidegate is less spiritual and symbolic than her paintings from the 1930s and is similar in subject matter to the series she created in 1912. The horizontal sky is less Cubist-derived than the disjointed planes that she later employed in works such as Kitwancool (1928) and Big Raven (1931).

Compared to her 1912 paintings of the same location, the new canvas is deeper, bolder and more stylized. Gone is the painterly sky created with short brushstrokes, the black outlines that gave shape to the pole, and the pale colour palette. There is much less detail in the pole, clearly marking a move away from the documentary intent, and the jagged, leafless tree forms are particularly reminiscent of Lawren Harris. These features, plus the geometric shapes, thick, sculptural brushstrokes and a deep colour palette represent a break with earlier styles. In the 1928 work, Carr adds light and a sense of spirituality that are absent in the earlier version and exhibit the influence of Harris and his theosophical teachings.

After working with Mark Tobey for three weeks, Carr began to explore the relationship between the natural environment and totemic forms. The trees in her paintings were no longer decorative background figures, and she created stylized and semi-abstract foliage out of fragmented geometric shapes. The overlapping triangular greenery in canvases such as Totem and Forest (1931), Strangled by Growth (1931) and Zunoqua of the Cat Village (1931) convey a mood of danger and despair, and Carr creates tension in her work by pitting forest against totem.

I got a letter from Tobey. He is clever but his work has no soul. It's clever and beautiful. He knows a lot and talks well but it lacks something. He knows perhaps more than Lawren, but how different. He told me to pep my work up and get off the monotone, even exaggerate light and shade, to watch rhythmic relations and reversals of detail, to make my canvas two-thirds half-tone, one third black and white. Well, it sounds good but it's rather painting to recipe, isn't it? I know I am in a monotone. My forests are too monotonous. I must pep them up with higher contrasts. But what is it all without soul? It is dead. It's the hole you put the things into, the space that wraps it round, and the God in the thing that counts above everything.

– "Hundreds and Thousands" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 668.

Zunoqua of the Cat Village is a good example of one of Carr's more conceptual works from this period. The cats' eyes and partial bodies are drowning in a sea of foliage, and the separation between the greenery and the feline forms is almost imperceptible. The totemic figure, unlike those in many of her earlier efforts, is gazing not directly at the viewer but at some unknown distant point. Carr's use of dark colours contributes to the ominous mood of the painting.

In Strangled by Growth, the sculptural foliage wraps itself around the totem, concealing all but the face. Here Carr hints at the ephemeral character of totems. At any point they are subject to being reclaimed by nature and returning to the soil to nourish new trees. The face of the totem seems to be screaming out in fear—a harrowing image. Light is reflected on a few yellow edges of the greenery, creating a divine presence within the foliage itself.

Big Raven, one of Carr's best-known canvases, depicts sinewy foliage circling the foot of the totemic bird. The sky consists of geometric shafts that shine down as the great bird stares nobly away from the viewer, accepting its fate. When this painting is compared to a watercolour depicting the same subject, Cumshewa (1912), the change in Carr's style is striking. In the 1912 work the foliage is more painterly and lacks the menacing quality present in the later canvas. The sky in Big Raven is far more spiritual and compelling; in Cumshewa the sky is livelier but also less powerful. The two works elicit quite different responses even though they depict an identical scene.

The paintings Carr created in the late 1920s and early 1930s are dark, in both colour and intent. Strangled by Growth and Big Raven, produced in February of 1931, mark the conclusion of her late totem period. For the next decade, she focused her attention almost solely on the landscape and abandoned Native themes. Her work was never again as formal or highly designed, and she scaled down her artistic process to infuse her work with movement and spontaneity. After this period, her forms were never quite as structured and geometrical. Grey (1929-30), one of her most accomplished works from this time, is a transitional piece that signals this evolution in subject matter. The forest in the work is simplified to a triangular form, and with no totem pole to carry the expressive power, the central tree is anthropomorphized with an eye-like form penetrating its centre. In Carr's next stage of artistic development, the landscape is forced to carry the emotional and spiritual weight of the canvas.

1 Doris Shadbolt, Emily Carr (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990), p. 47.
2 Shadbolt, p. 64.