The Mother of Modern Art, Cultural Tourism, and Blockbuster Retrospectives on Canadian Artists
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The Mother of Modern Art, Cultural Tourism, and Blockbuster Retrospectives on Canadian Artists

Along with a multi-image magnet set ($16.95), an Indian Church nightlight ($34.95), and a package deal with the Fairmont Royal York titled “Painted Wilderness in the City” ($269.00+), the AGO’s latest exhibition offers demystification of one of Canada’s most famous artists.
Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon, a traveling show co-organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada, aims to reassess the heavily mythologized life and work of an artist who was derided as an eccentric in her own time and revered as an artistic genius more recently.

But are the perspectives seen in Emily Carr really all that new? Previous retrospectives of the Victoria-born painter have tended to celebrate Carr’s incorporation of North-West Coast Native imagery into a modern painting practice and sensationalize her persona as a poverty-stricken recluse whose best friends were her exotic pets. In contrast, New Perspectives attempts to break down the artist’s relationship to her influences, suggesting she was a cultural tourist, and portraying Carr as a self-reflective and rather humorous individual. Yet to anyone who has considered the social impact of cultural appropriation and the oft resulting heroism of the inflicting, misunderstood artist (see Picasso), these things will hardly come as a surprise. And to those who haven’t, the subtle non-partisan allusions to these ideas scattered throughout the text-laden exhibition will likely go unnoticed.
One case in point is the first section, titled “1927 Reconstructed,” which recreates the seminal exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern that introduced Carr to the world and, notably, to the Group of Seven. There is something uncomfortable about standing in this near-exact replica (right down to the “jute” paint on the wall) of an exhibition that has been rightly criticized for imposing an evolutionary link between modern artists of European descent and their “primitive” Aboriginal counterparts. A Heiltsuk mask stares ominously from above Carr’s painting of an Aboriginal graveyard entrance. Florence Wyle’s Native-style owl bookends share a case with a Haida rattle. While accompanying text acknowledges that the First Nations’ objects are “set outside their original functions and contexts,” it fails to elaborate on their exploitative use by artists, or the paternalistic drive that led Carr and others to document an exotic culture they erroneously considered to be going extinct.
Curators Ian Thom, Charles Hill, and Joanne Lamoureux’s thematic organization of the exhibition does go a long way to present insights into Carr’s career that would not come to light in a traditional chronology. The artist’s transition from her earlier aspirations to document West Coast Indigenous culture to increasing concern with personal expression is traced in a section called “Modernism Remembered,” which grounds the Group of Seven’s title for Carr as “The Mother of Modern Arts.”
Another section connects Carr’s later iconic image of the lone tree against a barren landscape to the increasing industrialization of Vancouver Island, pointing out the irony in her love of nature. Contemporary governmental films promoting deforestation are a playful counterpoint to Carr’s romantic and sometimes downright schmaltzy paintings.
Final sections on Carr’s travels within First Nations villages and her resulting identity as an eccentric outsider situate the artist’s activities within a contemporary context of cultural tourism and try to show that she was a normal, multi-dimensional human being.
The endeavour to deconstruct the myth of Emily Carr is commendable and, certainly, rather innovative for a major museum exhibition (though scholars have been critical of these issues for decades). However, the measured, careful-not-to-provoke tone that pervades the exhibition sometimes makes the “new perspectives” seem like little more than a marketing ploy. The most innovative aspect of the show is in fact a separate exhibition that confronts visitors on their way out: four large prints by Toronto-based First Nations photographer Arthur Renwick feature the facades of First Nations churches in B.C. The contemporary documentary-style images might hold the most stimulating dialogue with Carr’s historical attempts to document Aboriginal Culture in art.
Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon opens today and continues until May 20, 2007 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is the second last major exhibition before the Gallery closes for reinstallation prior to its grand re-opening in mid-2008.
Emily Carr, Self-Portrait, 1938-39, and Guyasdoms D’Sonoqua, c. 1930, both courtesy of the AGO (Copyright National Gallery of Canada 2007).