BlogApril 28, 2018

Emily Carr’s "Totems, Tanoo": Unpublished and Unseen in Public since 1944

An Appreciation written by distinguished Scholar Charlie Hill

 Born in Victoria in 1871, the same year British Columbia joined the Canadian confederation, Emily Carr was one of six surviving children of Richard and Emily Carr. Orphaned at the age of sixteen and dependent on her older siblings, she soon set out to find independence and a direction for her life as a painter. In 1907, the year following her move to Vancouver, Carr defined her goals as an artist: to document the monumental arts of the indigenous populations of her native province. During the following two summers she painted in the Kwakwa’wakw (Kwakiutl) villages of ‘Yalis (Alert Bay), T’ła’mataxw (Campbell River) and T’sakwa’lutan (Cape Mudge).


Though Carr had previously studied art in San Francisco and England, she became increasingly aware that, though she had a subject, she hadn’t found an appropriate visual language to interpret it. In 1910-11, she studied in Paris and painted at Crécy-en-Brie and in Brittany. It was in France that she found a brightly coloured, fauvist visual language that had an expressive force equal to the subjects she wanted to paint.

In the summer of 1912, she set out on her most ambitious painting trip yet, returning to Alert Bay and travelling on to the Gitxsan villages in the Skeena River valley and Haida villages on Haida Gwaii. Carr later recounted her adventures in her award-winning book Klee Wyck, published in 1941. Clara and William Russ of Skidegate, identified in Carr’s book as Louisa and Jimmie, enabled Carr to reach the villages on the southern islands of Haida Gwaii. The populations of these thriving villages had been decimated by epidemics and, no longer self-sufficient, by the 1890s the surviving populations had congregated in the northern villages of Hlragilda (Skidegate) and Rad raci7waas (Old Masset), leaving behind their communal and mortuary houses and crest, memorial and mortuary poles.


The villages were situated on the shore between the ocean and the forest. In Klee Wyck Carr described her visit to the abandoned village of T’annu (Tanoo). “We … came to Tanoo in the early evening. It looked very solemn as we came nearer. Quite far out from land Jimmie shut off the engine and plopped the anchor into the sea.  Then he shoved the canoe overboard, and putting my sheep dog and me into it, nosed it gently through the kelp. The grating of our canoe on the pebbles warned the silence that we were come to break it. … At one side of the Tanoo beach rose a big bluff, black now that the sun was behind it.  … At its foot was the skeleton of a house; all that was left of it was the great beams and the corner posts and two carved poles one at each end of it. … In that part of the village no other houses were left, but there were lots of totem poles sticking up. A tall slender one belonged to Louisa’s grandmother. It had a story carved on it; Louisa told it to us in a loose sort of way as if she had half forgotten it.  On the base of this pole was the figure of a man; he had on a tall, tall hat, which was made up of sections, and was a hat of great honour. On the top of the hat perched a raven. Little figures of men were clinging to every ring of honour all the way up the hat. The story told that the man had adopted a raven as his son. The raven turned out to be a wicked trickster and brought a flood upon his foster parents. When the waters rose the man’s nephews and relations climbed up the rings of the hat of honour and were thus saved from being drowned. It was a fine pole, bleached of all colour and then bloomed over again with greeny-yellow mould.” Carr worked through the next day. “Pictures of all the poles were in my sketch sack. I strapped it up and said, ‘That’s that.’ Then we went away from Tanoo and left the silence to heal itself – left the totem poles staring out over the sea.” 


As Carr noted, T’anuu was split into two parts by a nose of land. Totems,Tanoo, depicts poles in the southwest end of the village and includes Clara Russ’ family pole second from the left. In his book Haida Monumental Art (UBC Press 1983), George MacDonald gives a variant narrative of the flood story. “Qingi, the supernatural father of the White Raven, … was raising a new totem pole before his house when a flood struck the world. As the floodwaters began to rise around the guests and relatives, they scrambled up the pole to keep from being drowned. White Raven, the wonder worker, alighted on top of the pole and by his magic caused it to grow as the waters rose. The totem pole became a gigantic tree filled with the survivors of the flood.”


George MacDonald has also identified the poles depicted in Totems, Tanoo. Left to right they are a memorial pole erected after 1878 by the widow of a chief of T’anuu; Clara Russ’ grandmother’s house front pole; a memorial pole erected before 1878 in memory of a chief killed at Fort Rupert; two memorial poles with a thunderbird and whale erected for a chief named Skitgades and for the mother of the last Skidgates; and a mortuary pole. In the centre foreground are the remnants of a mortuary post with a thunderbird on the base, the beak now missing.


 After 1911, Carr’s documentary project had an inherent problem. On the one hand was the desire to document the art in a manner different from the photographs taken over the preceding decades.  But as an artist, newly attuned to the expressive powers of fauvist painting, she added a dimension that was effectively antithetical to the documentary intent. When she tried to sell her collection to the British Columbia government in the fall of 1912, Dr. Newcombe was consulted about their documentary importance and he observed, “There are two sets of paintings.  Some in oil colours, and the rest are in watercolour. To my mind they are too brilliant and vivid to be true to the actual conditions of the coast villages, at least. At close range it is seen that the materials used have been laid on with a heavy hand. On standing away several feet distance, the colours blend and the roughness lost sight of. Another criticism I have to offer is that no standard of comparative size has been followed.  Hence, in the case of the Haida places the short burial poles stand out as large as the high house poles, that is in different pictures. Summing up, I am of opinion that if the colours could be toned down in new copies and if certain details of size and accuracy were corrected under proper supervision, many of Miss Carr’s studies might be of interest and value as decorative wall paintings.”

 Carr only painted in watercolour while travelling with the Russes. Some are detailed studies of individual poles, such as a vertical watercolour of Clara Russ’ grandmother’s pole at Tanoo (fig. 1, above) painted in monochrome washes. Here she concentrated on the sculptural details with a more documentary intent. A photograph of Emily Carr taken by William Russ in the north end of Tanoo (fig. 2, below) shows that she also painted on large Imperial watercolour paper (approximately 30 x 22 inches or 76 x 56 cm) tacked to a hard support. In her book, Unsettling Encounters First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (UBC Press 2006), Gerta Moray has suggested that in front of the subject Carr laid in the essentials on the large sheets finishing them in her studio. Some of the larger watercolours would also be worked up in oils in Vancouver.


 Carr painted at least seven watercolours on Imperial size sheets at T’anuu. Totems, Tanoo is the finest of the three large depictions of poles in the south-west end of the village. One, given by Carr to Dr. Max Stern in 1944 and now in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (fig. 3, below), depicts the thunderbird-whale memorial poles seen on the right side of Totems,Tanoo. However Carr has taken artistic liberty and reoriented them for pictorial effect.  

In Totems, Tanoo, Carr has utilized the expressive qualities of colour and brushwork to maximum effect. Always sensitive to the natural environment of each village she visited, the painting is as much about the beach and forest as the poles. The foreground is painted in broad strokes of rich blues, crimsons and yellows, the forest in broad swathes of blue and green. The crests of the trees are silhouetted against the swirling clouds that echo the dynamic foreground. The bleached poles are framed and embraced by nature.

Unpublished and not seen in public since acquired from Carr by Dr. Max Stern of the Dominion Gallery in August 1944, Totems, Tanoo is in exceptional condition, its colour and vivacity as fresh as the day Carr painted it.

Written by Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill began working at the National Gallery of Canada in 1972 and was Curator of Canadian Art from 1980 to 2014. The exhibitions he organized and publications he wrote include “Canadian Painting in the Thirties” (1975), “To Found a National Gallery. The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts 1880-1913” (1980), “Morrice A Gift to the Nation The G. Blair Laing Collection” (1992) and “The Group of Seven Art for a Nation” (1995). He was co-curator and contributed essays to the catalogues of “Tom Thomson” (2002), “Emily Carr A New Perspective” (2006) and “Artists, Architects, Artisans Canadian Art 1890 - 1918” (2013). He was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2000, received an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia University in 2007 and the Award of Distinguished Service from the Canadian Museums Association in 2012.

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