The Life Of Emily Carr

by Paula Blanchard
336 pages,
ISBN: 0888945809

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The Peaceable Wilderness
by Gerta Moray

ILY CARR is now the subject of a second major biography. Eight years ago, Maria Tippett placed Carr's fife and career in a fascinatingly detailed historical reconstruction of period and place. Paula Blanchard moves into another dimension. Hers is a psychological biography, intent not so much on reconstructing Carr's external circumstances as on her inner, subjective experience of these. Blanchard is motivated by a feminist curiosity about why some women have I I overcome the considerable social and psychological barriers that prevented others, equally gifted, from reaching full achievement." Emily Carr is an excellent test case.

Blanchard looks for clues in Carr's legacy of writings (her autobiographies, stories, journals, and letters, published and unpublished), sources which she acknowledges are full of distortions, but revealing distortions. Carr's writings are her "resolution of the problem of personal myth." In a meticulous reconstruction of Carr's childhood as seen through her own reports and reminiscences, Blanchard seeks to establish the emotional and cognitive patterns through which Carr responded to her family and surroundings. Carr's early attitude formations are then linked convincingly throughout the book to her artistic development.

Blanchard emphasizes most strongly a particular characteristic Carr's anger and perpetually embattled stance and her constructive use of this in generating "the fierce energy that helped her shake off discouragement and even despair," as well as to combat the patronizing attitude of contemporaries towards women artists and modem art. Carr, she writes, "would not be what 'they' wanted her to be, and it was partly to spite 'them' that she became what she was." Blanchard traces early manifestations of this anger in Carr's rebellion against her autocratic father, whose favourite she initially was and whose irascible temperament she shared. She rejected his obsession with everything English, which she subsequently saw as typical of the I I sham" values she would combat in Victoria society. One might see a legacy of this confrontation in Carr's dedication to creating a specifically Canadian landscape idiom a final defiance of her father's imposition of English qualities on the 10 acres of his British Columbia estate, where "there were hawthorn hedges, primrose banks and cow pastures with shrubberies."

Carr's perceptions of her mother, as Blanchard emphasizes, formed a strong contrast in the dualism of her personal mythology. Her mother is depicted as gentle, accepting, spontaneous, not a disciplinarian. Sometimes Emily accompanied her to the Episcopalian church, which, unlike the "grim and stem 'rightness'" of the Presbyterian services she had to attend with her father, was mellow, beautiful and filled with music. In Growing Pains, Carr describes her mother's remarkable action at a pivotal moment in her daughter's life. Just when Emily's rejection of her father comes to a head (presumably as a result of her revulsion at the "brutal telling" he employed for her sex education, which she would keep an angry secret for the next 50 years), her mother, instead of punishing her, takes Emily off alone for a picnic and, unlocking the gate of the perimeter fence (symbol of her father's domain), leads her into the unspoiled and blossoming wilderness of Beacon Hill Park.

Blanchard points to many places in Carr's writings where we find parallels between the ideal qualities attributed to her mother (contact with nature, love of beauty, rejection of haste and of hectoring) and those that she perceived in the native Indians. Carr persistently invokes motherhood and womanliness as constructive forces (finding them notably in the Indian village of Kitwancool) and undoubtedly associated them with the creative fusion of spiritual and sensuous qualities that she valued in art.

These are examples of the kind of stimulating insight this book offers. Blanchard takes us inside Carr's perceptions of and relations with her world, bringing together reflections that are scattered through published and unpublished documents. She thus elucidates many of Carr's persistent themes, goals, and conflicts, never glossing over the complexity and contradictions of her character. Blanchard's writing is often as lively and witty as Carr's own. If this book is not the last word by any means on Carr's psychological make up or creative achievement, it constitutes a large step towards a fuller understanding. There are certain blind spots: concentrating predominantly on Carr's written production, Blanchard does not go as far as I believe is needed in extending our picture of Carr as a painter. She was certainly a mystic, but also a hard headed and ambitious professional, and one more willing than has been realized to engage with ideas and technical theory and with criticism from professional peers. Many aspects of Carr's development and strategies as a painter needs further clarification.

Several more Emily Carrs will undoubtedly emerge in the years to come. Her work has been recently exhibited in two big American exhibitions, one on Post Impressionism and another on modem expressionist landscape in North America. Her late letters are being prepared for publication. Paula Blanchard's book will help the reader to understand the rich complexities and contradictions that make Carr interesting from so many different viewpoints. This is a stimulating and highly readable contribution to the growing shelf of books currently available on and by Emily Carr.


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