Blunden Harbour, c. 1930

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour (circa 1927-1932)

"Art is art, nature is nature, you cannot improve upon it.... Pictures should be inspired by nature, but made in the soul of the artist; it is the soul of the individual that counts."
Emily Carr, 1912

Emily Carr was a prominent Canadian artist and writer. While studying in France early in her career, Carr was influenced by styles such as post-impressionism and Fauvism. But, while it may be true that style wise her modernist representation broke little new ground, the combination of subject matter, time and placement within Canada, makes her work remarkable. Her stylized modernist paintings broke from the visual representation expected by the museum and government officials whom she relied upon to sponsor her work. Both Victoria and Vancouver were artistically very conservative and found her style alien and strange. The art world did not understand her modern paintings and had failed to embrace her “Indian images”. A key factor being that her subject matter was not in line with the prevailing views of society at the time. Carr’s marginalized position as a woman without professional or family prestige was a factor in her lack of early success as well. Carr was largely ignored by the art world because she challenged the traditional roles of women. She was an impoverished single woman for the majority of her life, and much like the Natives she enjoyed painting, on the fringes of society, both artistically and economically. It is for this reason, that Carr found the depiction of female figures so fascinating within Indian carvings. Other contributing factors were placement. The major centers for Canadian art at that time were taking place in central Canada, isolating Carr, who was located on the west coast. Cut off from not just the eastern art market, but from Vancouver as well. As a result, she experienced a strong sense of artistic isolation by the art world for many years to come.
Emily Carr’s painting Blunden Harbour was created between 1927 and 1932 and is based on a photograph taken by W.A. Newcombe in 1901. Carr herself, never actually visited the village. The Kwakwaka'wakw is an Indigenous nation located in a small village on the coast of Vancouver Island called Blunden Harbour. The government’s primary goals were to bring First Nations within the white society’s legal and economic system. They saw First Nations customs, institutions, and traditions as obstacles to morality and progress. The Kwakwaka'wakw people were determined to maintain their traditions. They are made up of 17 tribes who all speak the common language of kwak'wala but each with their own history, culture, and governance. The original photograph contained Native people, whom she eliminated in the painting. She did this to symbolize the perceived disappearance of the Natives peoples and their cultures. As a painter, she recognized the importance of preserving the unique artistic and cultural presence that Canadian natives possessed. This is evident in her painting of Blunden Harbour. After 1931, her themes changed to that of the trees and forests of British Columbia at the urging of long time Group of Seven friend, Lawren Harris.

During the years of 1929 to 1939, there was a world wide Depression and Canada was one of the worst affected countries. However, after World War II, the art world saw a shift towards the individual and less on traditional art processes. Canadian critics were regarding artists like James Wilson Morrice and David Milne with appreciation. In the summer of 1927, Carr’s work began to gain recognition as suddenly the art world was interested in Canadian Native arts. Eric Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Canada visited Carr in 1927. Her paintings were needed for a major exhibition highlighting Northwest Coast Native art. The gallery purchased her remaining post-1928 paintings after Carr had suffered a heart attack. The money enabled her to pay her medical bills. It was while Carr was hospitalized that Eric Newton, the acclaimed British art critic, visited her studio. He pronounced her Canada’s outstanding artist of her generation”. Suddenly her paintings were being viewed by museums as important works well suited for public display. Edythe Hembroff, a private art buyer, was determined to purchase Blunden Harbour from Carr, but she was adamant that it should go to a public collection. Most of Carr’s Indian works now reside in the Vancouver Art Gallery but only because Carr herself donated them to the public, not because they were purchased.

The National Gallery of Canada purchased Blunden Harbour in 1937.

The painting Blunden Harbour, was created at the very end of her Native and totem period often referred to as Modernism and Late Totems (1927-1932). The medium used is oil on canvas. The dimensions are 129.8 cm x 93.6 cm. Her paintings from this period are dark in color and in mood. She frequently painted decaying poles and villages, symbolizing the impression of a dying culture. Blunden Harbour highlights the powerfulness of the Kwakwaka'wakw totems in an almost mystical way. They are large in statue, domineering, and the focus of the canvas. The sky, the water, and hills blend in the background in perfect harmony. Carr’s concerns and sadness over the Indian culture are converged into her body of work from this era. Her professional, stylistic, political, and personal concerns are represented in a haunting fashion. She used her artwork to bring attention to what she perceived as the devastating disappearance of the Kwakwaka'wakw culture.


Unsettling encounters: First Nations imagery in the art of Emily Carr
Moray, Gerta.