Introduction to Exhibit

To the Totem Forests: Emily Carr and Contemporaries Interpret Coastal Villages

Emily Carr visited Sitka, Alaska, in 1907; there, for the first time, she saw totem poles standing in a forested setting. Ironically, these were in a park, having been relocated from Haida and Tlingit Indian villages in a scheme to preserve them from vandalism. They so impressed her that she resolved to record all the standing totem poles in British Columbia. Between 1908 and 1912, she engaged in this ambitious project, documenting carvings on Haida Gwaii, the Skeena River and islands off northern Vancouver Island. She was alone in choosing this subject matter, with the exception of F.M. Bell-Smith, who produced two views of Alert Bay in 1909.

During these early field trips, Carr worked almost exclusively in watercolour, quickly rendering her sketches under pressure of time and uncertain weather. Although they were not as accurate as she would repeatedly claim, they nevertheless capture the essence of Northwest Coast monumental sculpture and are important historical documents.

A sojourn to study painting in France introduced Carr to the Post-Impressionist milieu, which influenced her to move from her avowed commitment to historical accuracy to vivid, emotive paintings in oil. These examples were to contribute both to a rejection of her work in 1913 and, fifteen years later, to a national celebration of it.

In 1913, Carr mounted an exhibition in Vancouver of more than two hundred paintings featuring First Nations images. Claiming its historical importance, she petitioned the British Columbia provincial government to purchase the collection and to underwrite the continuation of her documentary project. For a variety of legitimate reasons, Carr’s proposal was turned down, and, disheartened, she virtually abandoned painting for fifteen years.

As an introduction to her exhibition, she delivered a lengthy "Lecture on Totems." Regrettably, it is largely grandiloquent rhetoric on totemism based on by then outdated nineteenth-century British anthropological thought. However, it does contain lyrical passages evoking forest and sea, and the place of First Nations people in that environment. Most importantly, in it she records two thoroughly detailed accounts of family histories that are represented on Gitksan totem poles. The saga of Nekt predates and equals anthropologist Marius Barbeau’s account, recorded more than a decade later (1929:38).

In the 1920s, a number of eastern Canadian and American artists also explored the totem villages, most of them at the behest of Marius Barbeau. He introduced Langdon Kihn, A.Y. Jackson, Edwin Holgate and Ann Savage to Gitksan villages on the Skeena River. George Pepper painted there as well. Independently, Walter J. Phillips made sketching trips to the same Kwakwaka'wakw villages that Carr had depicted two decades earlier.

Also part of this documentary activity are historic photographs dating from 1884 to 1930 by Richard and Hannah Maynard, Charles Newcombe, William Halliday and others, often taken from the same perspective as the paintings. Bell-Smith used his own photographs as an aide memoire. Photographs also reveal that Kihn rearranged poles within their original settings in his paintings and that Phillips combined images from different villages to produce a satisfying composition.

Late in 1926, Barbeau and Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, began planning a seminal exhibition combining Northwest Coast artifacts with paintings of totem villages. Canadian West Coast Art—Native and Modern was to include works by Kihn, Jackson, Holgate, Savage and Phillips. Planning was well under way for the scheduled December 1927 opening before the curators “discovered” Emily Carr. Her work so impressed them that, in the end, she was better represented in the exhibition than any of the other artists.

When Carr travelled to Ontario for the installation and opening of the exhibition, she discovered a unique Canadian genre and cadre of artists entirely unknown to her, notably the Group of Seven. She met Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. Harris was to have a profound influence and their friendship endured for the rest of her life. Harris often wrote to Carr, with both praise and advice:

You see, your work is very individual and as far as I know, you have the feeling of the West coast beyond any one—and have and will find an equivalent for it in or through paint. How about leaving the Totems alone for a year or more? I mean, the Totem pole is a work of art in its own right and it is very difficult to use it in another form of art. But, how about seeking an equivalent for it in the exotic landscape of the Island and coast, making your own form and forms within the greater form. Harris to Carr n.d.

Finding artistic soulmates and the national exposure and adulation her paintings received proved pivotal—an affirmation—following which, her mature and distinctive personal style rapidly evolved. She returned to her studio with a passion. She reworked many of her earlier field sketches and turned to historical photographs for additional subject matter, as can be seen in her views of Heina, Skidegate, Blunden Harbour and Hiellen.

Most of the artists mentioned, and particularly Emily Carr, left diaries, letters and essays; quotations from these reveal their experiences of painting in an often challenging environment, although they sometimes misinterpreted and misconstrued what they saw. Largely unacknowledged in scholarly analysis of Carr and her contemporaries are the subjects of their work, the totem poles and the cultures that created them. Included here as counterpoint are statements from First Nations people, reminders that an authoritative voice was then, and remains, available to those seeking to probe the depths of the totem forests.

On to Exhibit

Home - Table of Contents - Introduction - Curator's Statement
Exhibit - List of Works - Map - Activity Centre - Bibliography - Credits