In Search of the Indigenous

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 1 November 2014-15 March 2015)

I confess that I had never heard of Emily Carr, apparently one of Canada’s best loved female painters. Of course, the list of female painters is depressingly short — although I’m fond of female surrealists such as Frieda Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, not to mention Laura Knight, Paula Rego, Elisabeth Blackadder and Bridget Riley… I presumed that she might have some connection to the Group of Seven, in part because the Dulwich Picture Gallery had a show of their work a few years ago.

If memory serves there were a number of landscapes painted on wood, painted on location in the wilds of Ontario and points north, accompanied by full scale canvases. Slightly before them was Tom Thomson (1877–1917), who I think I saw a show by in Toronto (unless it was in Adelaide…). The landscapes are strangely depopulated, presenting Canada as a Terra Nullis, untouched by human hands. Of course, there were any number of indigenous native groupings, out of sight. It left me a little uncomfortable — but we’ll come back to that.

Emily Carr’s exhibition began with paintings of forest from the 1920s – in a sense toward the end of the story. The leaves spiral, there is a real sense of action in the painting – although, of course Carr writes “If there is no movement in the painting, then it is dead paint”. One of the most significant paintings is “Indian Church” (1929).

This is not Terra Nullis, because there is clearly the impact of western society on the forest, a whole way of thinking in the new world. But she was also interested in theosophy and mysticism and argues that “Metamorphosis between species and states is the only predictable feature of the cosmos”. Magic? Maybe.

Daughter of English immigrants to British Columbia, Carr had an interest from an early age in the wilderness outside the settlement. She had art lessons as a child and, despite the death of her parents, went to study at the California School of Design, San Francisco where she learned how to paint outside. On graduating she went to London, to the Westminster School of Art and took courses at places such as St Ives. Back in Canada she taught and painted, before travelling in 1907 to Alaska. She was inspired by Native American culture and art, and started trying to reproduce it in her paintings: “Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness … I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were the Old World heredity and ancestry”. Her paintings stay largely deserted – although some of the sites she depicted had been abandoned through disease or general depopulation. Here’s Janice Stewart: “Emily Carr found in her unproblematic identification with the Indians of the Canadian west coast a second skin to inhabit, which seems to have allowed her to paint and write beyond the gendered boundaries of contemporary conventional aesthetics. Carr identified the creative part of herself as Indian.” But Stewart is more interested in Carr’s writing than her paintings.

In 1910, Carr took a trip to Paris, where she was exposed to the Impressionism (and I guess early Post-Impressionism). Again, this would feed into her art – and it did strike me that some of her landscapes had the flavour of Vincent Van Gogh to them (whom she referred to as a “crazy poor chap”).

One striking painting is of Kwakwaka’wakw war canoes (1908 and 1912)– and this one does contain figures.

These are exactly the same boats as appeared in Edward S. Curtis Land of the Head Hunters (1914) – an extraordinary and deeply problematic drama where native culture was presented in a deliberately antiquated manner:

Inevitably she has taken a decision in the representation or not of indigenous peoples. A photograph of Blunden Harbour from 1901 (with people)

became the centre of a painting in 1930:

I’m torn – I don’t have enough data from the exhibition to know whether the elimination of the indigenous (whilst retaining their cultural productions) shows respect for them or is part of the Terra Nullis drive. As a female artist who kept not quite being taken seriously, she found something in the peopels she met to inspire her. But is is a form of romanticisation? Gerta Moray labels it “aestheticized nostalgia”, and suggests that Carr’s attempt to preserve what she perceived as a dying culture contributed to the decline.


  • Moray, Gerta (1993) Northwest Coast Culture and the Early Indian Paintings of Emily Carr, 1899-1913. Diss. University of Toronto, 1993.
  • Morra, Linda (2004) “‘Like Rain Drops Rolling Down New Paint’: Chinese Immigrants and the Problem of National Identity in the Work of Emily Carr,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 34(3): 415-438.
  • Stewart, Janice (2005) “Cultural Appropriations and Identificatory Practices in Emily Carr’s ‘Indian Stories’”, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26(2): 59-72.

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