“Last night I dreamed that I came face to face with a picture I had done and forgotten, a forest done in simple movement, just forms of trees moving in space. That is the third time I have seen pictures in my dreams, a glint of what I’m striving to attain.” Emily Carr
This post is not likely to offer up any insight into, or a new take on, either of the two works which are the subject of its content. Instead, my intention in bringing them to attention here is to present you with an experiment in perception, by the comparison of two works created some 25 years apart. These two pieces share both subject matter and title: ‘Wood Interior’. The first was made in 1909 and the second, c. 1933. My proposed experiment involves tracing Carr’s maturation of mastery in giving palpable expression to the living spiritual presence within the interior of these woods, as she herself experienced it.
In my view, with regard to technique and execution in successfully depicting their specific subject matter, both works exhibit incontestable evidence of Carr’s mastery of the medium. In fact, what I find so compelling about these two, is that the seed(*) of what Carr was, eventually, able to achieve in the later work is clearly evident in the earlier one. (*-pun so intended) In observing these two together in this way, I am fascinated by the profound difference between them with regard to their quality of expression in communicating the spiritual dimension present within their shared subject matter.
The 1909 work gives a very accurate and engaging depiction of the interior of a wooded landscape. One clearly sees the intense study of her subject, both its physical as well as its non-physical features are given powerful expression by Carr’s genius. Viewing this work, I receive a strong sense of the living spirit present in this wood’s interior. Intriguingly, we are shown the forest floor where the roots are and where these towering giants rise from the earth and reach high into the sky. The tops of these trees are so high that only shafts of direct sunlight are visible down near the ground. Giving us this view, Carr is showing us each separate feature of this landscape, as well as where they all are united. It is a unified, harmonious, composition, but one which (to my eye) gives too much emphasis to each separate element of the whole. And even though sunlight is shown to be playing & dancing among the trees and through their branches, I find the scene to be rather static and stiff. But behind this, one senses something very powerful seeking full release from all constraints. This is what most fascinates me about this piece. Carr, at this stage in her development, is able to give a masterfully realistic and traditional depiction of her chosen subject, and one can strongly sense her desire to communicate a dimension of the scene which is meta-physical: a living spirit that animates these physical elements and unites them in a harmonious whole, which is more than the mere sum of its parts. But to my eye, it doesn’t quite come off in this work. It’s there, but muted.
25 years later she returned to the same subject and created a canvas that shares the title of the earlier work. Something not unique in Carr’s oeuvre, at least two other works from the 1930’s share this title, however this one in particular suggests (to me) that she may have had the 1909 work in mind when composing this wooded interior. And here you clearly see that what was simply hinted at in the earlier piece is now realized with the full power of Carr’s mature mastery of her medium. This is really a breathtaking work. It is currently on display as part of the ‘Emily Carr: Deep Forest’ exhibition at the VAG. The words harmonious composition are plainly insufficient to accurately describe all that is present in this work. From the shape of the trees with their canopy of branches and the lush undergrowth on the forest floor, together with a diverse, yet specific, palette of colours, Carr gives the viewer a sense of that indescribable something which is the reason for the wood’s existence as well as for the existence of the viewer her/himself. Movement, Life, Spirit, Harmony, and Unity are all words which spring to mind as I gaze upon this masterpiece. Anything else I write will just be babble. Simply contemplate these two brilliant works by Carr and marvel at how she, as an artist, was able to achieve exactly what she was striving to attain, plus to have done so with such remarkable skill, talent, genius, and a dedication to her craft; which is an inspiration to not only other artists, but to every sentient being.