Toronto
3 min

What was driving Carr’s sensuality?

All I want to know about the big new Emily Carr show at the Art Gallery Of Ontario (AGO) is, What’s with the monkey? And is it any relation to the monkeys in Attila Richard Lukacs’ work?

Carr, the great painter of the Canadian west coast, had a pet monkey named Woo and she painted him a couple of times. There is a photo and a portrait in the AGO show (on till Sun, May 20). Lukacs is best known for his bad-boy portraits of German skinheads, but he also painted a series of monkeys. Lukacs is gay. So what does that make Carr?

It’s a weird jump of logic, I know, but that’s just the way my mind works. Closer-than-usual relationships to animals always remind me of JR Ackerley, the gay British writer (My Father And Myself) whose most successful long-term relationship was with his pet German shepherd.

I doubt that Carr ventured in that direction. Trees were more her thing. But the presence of Woo in a show noticeably short on portraits and other depictions of the personal make you wonder about Carr’s emotional makeup.

I went to the show almost by accident and spent far longer than I expected to. It’s a fascinating show, if a little overly complicated and burdened with contemporary concerns about racism and cultural appropriation. You come away knowing far more than you ever expected to about early 20th-century cultural tourism and clear-cutting and far less about Carr’s actual artistic achievement.

In fact, the show works so hard to situate Carr within a web of historic, cultural and economic forces that it almost loses track of the woman herself. Her stern self-portrait doesn’t appear until the end of the show and even then it admits little but fear. Carr was clearly not a woman to be tangled with and she probably wouldn’t like my speculating about her personal life. (She is known to have destroyed some of her more personal papers.)

But you can’t help but wonder about a woman who, at least in her best-known photographs, looks more than a little bit like Gertrude Stein. Carr painted almost nothing but trees and native villages, but her work is heavy with an almost volcanic sexuality, particularly the great works of her middle period.

Painted mostly between 1928 and 1932, these are the paintings everyone associates with Carr — Indian Church, Inside A Forest II, Old Time Coast Village and especially Tree Trunk. Reproduced on stamps, postcards and endless catalogues, they’re everywhere in the Canadian psyche. But if you’ve only seen them in reproduction, you haven’t really seen them.

You can catch a not-bad reproduction of the astonishing Forest, British Columbia (1932) on-line at Virtualmuseum.ca but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer voluptuousness of the actual work. In this sombre but dramatic forest scene, boughs drape the set like velvet, trees brace the sides like human ribs and the centre opens into a cave of mysterious renown.

One hesitates to use a term as crude as “vagina symbolism” in connection with a picture this great, but if this isn’t a depiction of female force and interiority, I don’t know what is. Carr must be the only painter around who could paint a tree trunk and make it look like the very opposite of phallic. Her trees are less supports of the sky than openings into the unknown. If this is a spiritual encounter, it’s of the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel variety — very hands-on and sweaty.

The sexuality pretty much hits you in the face. But you won’t hear a thing about it in the accompanying wall cards. Just one brief (and puzzling) mention of Carr’s “sexual marginalization.”

It’s not until the end of the show, four rooms and several hours later, that you get even a whiff of the personal, and then suddenly there’s the monkey picture and a portrait of Carr’s longtime friend, the Coast Salish artist Sophie Frank.

Carr and Frank were friends for more than 30 years and Frank’s portrait hung in Carr’s studio. We know because there’s a photo of Carr, the studio and the portrait. But that’s about the extent of the information available in the actual show.

To find out more you’ll have to consult the lavish, beautiful and rather expensive ($75) catalogue. There, a couple of earnest essayists admit that, “The friendship could have been sexual; such love affairs were not unheard of at the time, just never mentioned. No one can know. Yet it was certainly intimate, affirming and sensual.”

Carr’s exact sexuality may indeed be unknowable. She also wrote “steamy” letters to a closeted gay man so who knows what was going on with her libido. But a little more speculation wouldn’t be out of place.

Carr is usually portrayed as a solitary and eccentric outsider — a woman who rejected marriage for art. But as with anyone of her achievement, the question arises, Whence came her support and in what form? This isn’t pure prurience. The question still has relevance for anyone who wants to step outside the mainstream and do great work. Carr may be long gone (she died in 1945) but we’re still here, looking at her whirling dervish paintings and wondering whence their mix of joy and turmoil.