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Manitoba History: Review: Maria Tippett, Emily Carr: A Biography

by A. B. McKillop
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 2, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

By the time she had completed her biography of Emily Carr, Maria Tippett had come to be “filled with admiration and wonder” at the complex and fascinating life she had uncovered. Her preface expresses the hope that readers will meet with a similar response, and it is difficult to believe that after finishing this searching biography any reader will do otherwise.

Richly detailed and well researched, the book leads us from late nineteenth century Victoria, where Emily was born (the eighth of nine children), to early twentieth century San Francisco, England, and France, where the young artist took instruction, and back to British Columbia. The native culture and the forests always remained the source of Emily’s primary loyalty and inspiration. In the course of this educative odyssey there emerges a psychologically complex, ambivalent, yet markedly innocent personality which sought to reconcile—transcend is perhaps a more accurate word—the antipodal imperatives which shaped its consciousness. Carr detested the smug complacency and traditionalism of Victoria society with regard to both social and artistic values; yet she never ceased to need the acceptance and support of that social group. She sought to break with the artistic conventions acceptable to most British Columbia artists and to paint the inner strengths and meanings of the totems as she saw them, yet for years she remained committed to rendering them as part of the purely historical record. All her life Emily Carr struggled, in a sense, against a duality in the Canadian experience more profound than even that of French and English: history and geography, time and place, memory and experience. “I painted them to please myself in my own way,” she noted in a letter that Tippett calls her ‘autobiographical canon’; “but also I stuck rigidly to fact because I knew 1 was painting history.”

This need to transcend cultural memory, embodied in artistic convention, was directly related to Carr’s own personal memory. Tippett makes clear from the outset what constituted the primary source of her problems. Until her early adolescence, Emily, the youngest of Richard Carr’s several daughters, was her father’s favourite—and she returned the affection. Then an event took place which permanently scarred her. The exact nature of the occurrence is left ambiguous and cryptic when Carr, late in her life, recalled this painful experience. “I couldn’t forgive Father, I just couldn’t for spoiling all the loveliness of life with that bestial brutalness of explanation filling me with horror instead of gently explaining the glorious beauty of reproduction the holiness and joy of it.” This expression of revulsion, Tippett adds. “makes one wonder whether it was caused by a misguided attempt to illustrate the explanation by some action.”

Whatever the exact nature of the event, it was one so horrific to young Emily that its memory lived on—as the “brutal telling”—until she finally spoke of it (significantly, only in a letter, for her closest friendships were epistolary ones) to a friend over fifty years later. Her life thereafter was turned around. Her father became an object of hatred and her sexuality. maturation, social development, and family relations were forever affected by feelings of guilt and alienation. She became the self-appointed “black sheep” of the family, difficult to live with and unconventional in her actions, if not in her basic attitudes.

The love of suitors subsequently remained unrequited; animals, symbols of innocence and unambiguous affection, became substitutes for serious human relationships: ‘life rooms’ in various art schools became intolerably “airless” and the partial cause of serious and lengthy neurasthenic breakdowns. Her love, her quest for religious and psychological peace and for personal identity, turned from humanity, the party of memory, to nature, the party of experience. Her artistic endeavours in the first quarter of the twentieth century gradually met with critical success, but she remained unfulfilled and fundamentally unhappy.

If one man caused the torment of the greater part of her life, another came to be the cause of her latter, more happy, days. By 1927 Emily Carr had been ‘discovered’ by Eastern Canadian art critics, curators and artists, most notably certain members of the Group of Seven (with which her art was coming to be associated). She had long known what art should do. As early as 1912 she had written, in response to a hostile critic: “Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist, no two individualities could behold the same thing and express it alike, either in words or in painting; it is the soul of the individual that counts. Extract the essence of your subject and paint yourself with it; forget the little petty things that don’t count; try for the bigger side.”

Yet until 1927 the side of Carr’s artistic need that functioned as anthropological recorder—the side of history—still dominated, the ‘essence’ of her subject matter; ‘the bigger side’, continued to elude her. This was dramatically changed when she met Lawren Harris at his Toronto studio on the seventeenth of November, 1927. Words were not necessary; the sight of Harris’ paintings was enough to change her life once again.

Always fundamentally of a religious sensibility, Carr experienced then and there, in Tippets words, “an epiphany:’ And this is surely what it was, for it was an experience so profound that it moved the tearful artist to confide to her diary that night: “Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world.” The lingering memory of Harris’ art was still “surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and irresistible, and carrying me away on its wild swirl like a helpless little bundle of wreckage:” The year 1927 truly was, as Tippett claims, Carr’s annus mirabilis. She had been liberated from the tyranny of the past, both as personal memory and as artistic convention.

Her whole approach to painting, even of her traditional Indian subjects, changed. She shifted from recording objects purely “for history” to uncovering their inner power and strength. Furthermore, prodded by Harris, she now also sought to realize in her canvases the spiritual resources—what Harris called “the supreme logic behind the inner struggle”—of the British Columbia forests. The last ten years of Carr’s life, even though ones of physical deterioration, were both her happiest and her most successful as an artist. Her purpose in life came into clear focus. Her paintings at last gave her full satisfaction. She began to use autobiographical and fictional writings to come at last to grips with the various forms of alienation that had resulted from the “brutal telling” of so long ago. Still irascible at times to friends and relatives, she nevertheless ended her days fundamentally at peace with herself. She had by then received wide acclaim both for her writing and for her art.

Maria Tippett has written a book that does substantial justice to this story of enduring courage. It is full of images which linger long after the book is laid aside: the pet dog Ginger Pop scurrying to Emily’s feet to lend moral support when she momentarily loses courage at a lectern; the patient figure of Willie Newcombe, for years loyally framing canvases, building crates, and moving house for an aging spinster artist; the near-blind sister, Alice, helping an ailing Emily into the garden and into her beloved world of nature. Tippets biography lacks the deep psychological penetration made possible by John Mack’s sensitive use of psychiatric scholarship in his A Prince of Our Disorder; the Life of T E. Lawrence; nor can it be said that it compares, in sheer artistic insight, with Douglas Day’s brilliant study, Malcolm Lowry; A Biography. It is, however the best cultural biography yet done by a Canadian scholar. One closes its covers intent on going back to Klee Wyck or to the Carr canvases which may be at the local gallery, hoping to get one more glimpse of the painful yet joyous innocence of the Laughing One.

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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