Carr and Van Gogh

Stephanie_with Van Gogh
Van Gogh, “The Poet’s Garden,” Art Institute of Chicago

People Recognize Carr as Canada’s Van Gogh! Comments Surrounding Carr’s First UK Exhibition

Watching the CBC national news the other night, I was delighted to see coverage of Carr’s first UK exhibition, which opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England on November 1. “From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia,” curated by Canadian art critic Sarah Milroy and Dulwich Picture Gallery Sackler Director Ian AC Dejardin, with the assistance of James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver, will run until March 8 (the exhibition will also run in Toronto at the AGO from April 11 to July 12, 2015).

I was even more delighted, though, when the national newscast focused on a commentator at the preview and his words: “it’s like Van Gogh, in a way; you feel this incredible energy.”

Since that moment, I have been looking through coverage and reviews of the exhibition and am overjoyed to find that a number of people are breathing the name Van Gogh in relation to this notable first for Carr—her rather late positioning as a world-class artist outside of her own country by curators who obviously recognize genius.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery’s website quotes painter Peter Doig who notes that “[t]here’s an openness to her paintings that reminds [him] of Vincent van Gogh.”

I also perused coverage (by journalist Laura Cumming) in The Guardian/The Observer entitled “From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia review – Canada’s very own Van Gogh” where Cumming notes that “at her best Carr has more in common with her fellow outsider Van Gogh” [than with Georgia O’Keefe].

And I watched a short video on YouTube that concludes with Mr. Dejardin noting comparisons between Van Gogh and Carr.

I spent over five years researching Van Gogh and his work (travelling to the Van Gogh Art Museum in Amsterdam a number of times to work with his originals and spend time in an atmosphere that houses an extensive collection of his work), and I spent many more years researching Emily Carr. My fascination with Carr began in the last year of my undergraduate studies when I was taught her Governor General award winning short-story collection, Klee Wyck, and when I tried to determine what was “different” and “original” about her stories as I had not experienced anything like her writing before. I was sure then, as I am now, that the originality in her writing had to do with First Nations’ influences, but, at that time (back in the early nineties), not much criticism existed for the study of First Nations literature in Canada.

Years later, I would return to those ideas and to Carr when I wrote my PhD dissertation in literature at the University of Toronto and when I began what would become—many years later—my monograph with the University of Toronto Press: Before the Country: Native Renaissance, Canadian Mythology. As I was finally able to put it and understand things, I concluded, without a doubt, that Carr’s literary genius was attributable not only to First Nations’ visual art but also to First Nations’ literature (perhaps oral literature) of the West coast of Canada: “What was Carr doing when she was ‘peeling’ her sentences? [I asked] Was she trying to come up with a sentence like that found in the stories [George] Clutesi recorded [albeit, after Carr’s death]? ‘One must not defile the home of the Us-ma of our band / With the smell from the den of wolves’ (Clutesi, Potlatch 169). I am sure Carr was not enjoying a ‘lack of anxiety with literary influence.’ . . . . There was a reason she willed Clutesi her oils, brushes, and unused canvases” (McKenzie, Before the Country 113).

Ironically, my fascination with the connections between Carr and Van Gogh began with a consideration not of their visual artwork but with their sentiments as expressed in their writings–for the most part, Carr’s ideas as found in her posthumously published Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr (1966) and Van Gogh’s ideas as found in his letters to his brother, Theo. It was only after I decided to write about these two artists together due to my belief that their spirits were very comparable that I went on to study their visual artwork and to discover that Carr had been directly influenced by Van Gogh and that she consciously chose, at times, to mimic his style in painstaking consideration (the greatest form of flattery and dedication).

So with people beginning to see Carr for the first time outside Canada and immediately recognizing a connection with Van Gogh, I am growing satisfied and, strangely enough, from a poet’s perspective, feeling a little less alone. To have lived with research and ideas and connections in my own head for half a decade and, then, to have people instantly recognize what I have been thinking for so long is really a wonderful feeling.

Emily Carr, “Above the Gravel Pit,” from the Vancouver Art Gallery website.
Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Night,” from WikiArt.



Recently, I travelled to Oklahoma City to give a reading from and two talks about the research that went into Saviours in This Little Space for Now: Poems for Emily Carr and Vincent van Gogh. On my way back from Oklahoma City to Newfoundland, I had a seven-hour layover in Chicago. I cursed this fate at first and, then, realized that would allow me enough time to head down to the Art Institute of Chicago—one of the most wonderful collections of art in the world. There, I spent most of my time in the Modern Art collection that includes nearly 1000 works by many masters, including Picasso, O’Keeffe, and Matisse. My heart fell, though, as I wandered the rooms looking for Carr. I stopped and asked at the information desk if the Art Institute owned any Carrs, and my heart fell again when I was asked who she was and how to spell her name. My heart fell further when I was told “No. There’s no work by that artist here.”

I did end my visit to the Art Institute by chancing to see, for the first time, a number of Van Gogh’s originals that I had never seen before. I ended my trip by spending time looking at his painting The Poet’s Garden. But I couldn’t help thinking the garden there at the Institute was not complete and that it wouldn’t be complete or grow until Carr was rightfully hanging beside those with whom she deserves to share company—the world’s masters, the world’s very best.

How delighted I am, again, that it has taken very little time for people to recognize Carr is every bit as good as Van Gogh and that there is something comparable in their sensibilities and the energy that emanates from both their canvases. It is there in their visual artwork, and it is there in their writing, too, because, as I pointed out in the afterword with which I ended my latest book of poetry, it is there in their very spirits.

(If interested, see the PDF of the afterword for an explanation of connections between Carr and Van Gogh, or this video of an interview with me which aired on Eastlink TV, Newfoundland, in 2013. For further information about Carr, please see the following blog that profiles a two-day symposium on Emily Carr that Stephanie McKenzie and colleague Ingrid Mary Percy produced in March 2013.)


Works Cited

Carr, Emily. Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966.

_____.Klee Wyck. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Clutesi, George. Potlatch. Sidney, B.C.: Gray’s Publishing, 1969.