Emily Carr’s "Totems, Tanoo": Unpublished and Unseen in Public since 1944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