Art Gallery of Ontario: Emily Carr

Having seen the AGO exhibit, artist Lloyd Cooke commented on Emily Carr’s influence on the art of Helen Andersen. That was the reminder we needed to get to the show before it ends on August 9th.


Danica and I had seen many of the works on display before, and Lloyd is quite right. Helen was well aware of Carr’s work. The influence was probably strongest in the 1960s, but Helen was a Carr fan all of her life.

carr-protestHere’s a photo of Helen (right) in Victoria, protesting a government closure of the Emily Carr gallery in Victoria in the 1980s.

The current AGO exhibit is a good opportunity to see works that are seldom seen together. They range from early, competent but conventional watercolour landscapes to the vigorous, original oils for which Carr is famous.

The curators have wisely displayed aboriginal carvings and basketry along with the paintings, so we can see the powerful designs that inspired so much of Carr’s work.

As visitors, we start our tour in dark green rooms, perfect for displaying early, cubistically influenced forest images. As we progress through the show, the rooms become lighter and brighter, just as Carr’s paintings do. By the 1930s and 40s, Carr was at her peak, confidently expressive, using a language of paint that is her own. The looser she works, the better I like her.

By the end of her life, Carr was able to create impressions of air and light that are masterful. I learned that she used gasoline rather than conventional turpentine to mix fluid oil washes. Innovative (and brave!) The medium let Carr produce calligraphic brushstrokes that are a joy to see. The thinner colours appeal to me, too. Some of Carr’s dark, heavy greens in early works annoy me. Later works seem truer to the colour, light and atmosphere of the B.C. coast.

Thanks for the heads-up, Lloyd. It was great to see the show so well attended, even on a Tuesday morning. A guard told me that the flow of visitors has been excellent and steady. We appreciate our Emily Carr these days, recognizing her genius. It wasn’t always so.