A couple of weeks ago I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca to see the now closed exhibition of works by the Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) and the still current exhibition of works by Emily Carr curated under the title of Deep Forest. (Whether or not you are familiar with Carr, you may be interested in the following website http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca and searching “Emily Carr”).
I was somewhat intrigued, perturbed is a better word, by the fact that while I understood the need for dimmed lighting, especially in relation to the pigments on the woven hats, the information panels tended to be grey on grey, so reading them was a little challenging
Despite the darkness, I found Edenshaw’s work fascinating. He carved in wood and argillite, he made jewellery, decorated hats, he drew, and his designs influence Haida artists today. He left his etching tools to Bill Reid, and it was very interesting to see a silver bracelet made by Edenshaw side by side with the same design crafted by Reid using Edenshaw’s tools so many years later. I was perhaps a little concerned by the fact that the pieces I liked the most were those such as the argillite platters that were most probably made for sale to European and American buyers.
I think what I took with me when I left the Edenshaw exhibit were some of the usual questions one has about the whole relationship between artist and patron. For whom does the artist create art, especially if he or she has to make a living? This question becomes even more complex when one adds the colonial context to the debate. What exactly constitutes exploitation? Cultural appropriation?
Emily Carr (1871-1945) has sometimes been accused of cultural appropriation in her works recording the old poles of the BC coastal villages and in her use of first nations’ tropes such as the raven. Referring to Carr’s work resulting from her 1912 trip to the Skeena and Nass Rivers, Alert Bay, and Haida Gwai, Ian Thom says in his introduction to Emily Carr Collected, Carr’s “primary goal . . . was to document the villages and totems of First Nations people, which Carr, like most Euro-Canadians of her generation, believed were destined to disappear (8). If one draws on a tradition not one’s own, is one paying homage or committing a cultural theft? I haven’t answered this question for myself satisfactorily.
Most of the pictures in Deep Forest are, unsurprisingly, of trees and forest scenes. I’m not alone, I suspect, in my enjoyment of Emily Carr’s trees. Mysterious and powerful, they vibrate with energy; one can almost sense the canvas is moving. My favourite pictures are seductive, the trees sinuous, calling one into the secret pathways of the forest, calling one into the depths of something dimly perceived, not quite unknown, but so awe inspiring that one is not sure whether to follow the path into the deep greens, blues, and purples. When faced with Carr’s trees, I’m reminded of Jung’s recollection, “Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life” (C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffé. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage-Random, 1965, 64). These are works that speak to the landscape of one’s mind.
I wanted to keep something of the exhibition with me and hoped for a postcard or two. I particularly wanted a reproduction of Carr’s 1931 Tree Trunk. I couldn’t find such a thing, but I did find Emily Carr Collected a one hundred and fifty-two page book, of which one hundred and thirty-one pages are full colour reproductions of paintings by Carr. The volume includes Tree Trunk, so I bought it. Although the reproductions are, of course, smaller than the original works, they are printed on high quality gloss paper, so the colours glow and the graphic detail clear. At the end of the book a “List of Works” outlines detailed dimensions, media, provenance, and the Vancouver Art Gallery catalogue number. Ian Thom’s biographical introduction provides a short overview of Carr’s life, work, and place in Canadian art. I feel my investment of $19.95 is a good one. This book is going to give me pleasure for a long time.