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Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of their Own

By Robert Amos July 1, 2003

} Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of their Own An Exhibit ReviewBy Robert Amos Vancouver Art Gallery Phone: 604-662-4719 www.vanartgallery.bc.ca Until September 15, 2002 Georgia O¹Keeffe (1887-1986), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Emily Carr (1871-1945) are all legendary, breakthrough artists. Their paintings reveal thought-provoking approaches to womanhood, aboriginal culture, nationalism and modernism in art. Now for the first time we have the opportunity to view them together. ³Not that it¹s a competition,² curator Sharyn Udall of Santa Fe pointed out to me. ³I didn¹t try to make them a set of triplets.² Udall, in the book which underlies this show, compares and contrasts the three according to a variety of themes, yet allows each her individuality. The show opened last year at the McMichael Gallery near Toronto, travelled to Washington D. C. and Santa Fe, New Mexico; and finishes the tour in Vancouver. Included are a total of 56 paintings by the three artists. Critical attention has, so far, focussed on Carr. While the American audience is already familiar with O¹Keeffe and Kahlo, ³all the Carrs were new to them,² Udall told me. In America ³she was the great surprise.² In the selection of paintings which make up the show, Carr¹s work is larger, bolder and more vivacious than that of the other two. Emily Carr, Abstract Tree Forms, 1931-32, oil on paper 61 X 93.5 cm, Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust VAG 42-3-54. Photo by Trevor Mills. Excellent examples of Carr¹s middle and later period dominate every room. Totem Mother Kitwancool, The Red Cedar, and Big Raven are a few of the more familiar canvases among her powerful work. The sketch for Above the Gravel Pit from Victoria and the magisterial Western Forest on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario create a strong effect. Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills with the Pernal (Pedernal with Red Hills), 1936, oil on linen, 50 X 75.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Bequest of Helen Miller Jones, 1986 By comparison, O¹Keeffe may have been underrepresented. There are none of her famous big flower pictures, none of her Manhattan city scenes or those skulls hovering in air. Certainly, there are beautiful and significant paintings like Dark Tree Trunk and Lake George with Crows and Hernandez Church, New Mexico. Udall explains that she chose the ³less familiar work to provoke people to look more², and not to just rely on recognition of the iconic images. Kahlo has less in common than the other two. She is known for her surrealist, even grotesque psycho-portraits. The fine examples of these small-scale, rather intimate Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938, oil on masonite, 40.1 x 30.5 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N. Y., Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966. pictures of herself are in themselves fascinating, but don¹t suggest easy comparisons. Her most bizarre iconography - the deer with her own head, shot through with arrows, for instance - is not in evidence. This show is not presented in a chronological or biographical order. Udall has set out the pictures to illustrate a broad range of themes - landscape as body, personal myth-making, nationalism in art and so on. If you don¹t already know the biographies of these artists, you¹ll be a bit lost. And if you haven¹t read the book, the themes will not be obvious. So much for quibbles. Eventually, it all comes down to the paintings. Frida Kahlo¹s self portrait with her monkey is something you want to come back to, to look at more than once. Meticulously painted, it is imbued with Kahlo¹s rather ferocious naivete. Her portraits are obsessive devotional pieces for a peculiar and personal cult. Using a small brush, this Mexican woman elaborated her imagery in great detail. One of the only things she has in common with Carr is her little monkey. My favourite O¹Keeffe is a small oil of ghostly dark tree trunks. Their pale vertical forms stand against a night sky, with a sprinkling of stars in the background. O¹Keeffe often smooths out her oil paint to remove any trace of brush mark, carefully graduating the tones of bone, adobe, sand and sky. This smoothness makes a contrast to Carr¹s more visible and aggressive paint handling. Carr¹s strength is her amazing grasp of form. In her long career, she worked hard to keep to the big picture and the major rythmn. As seen in this show, she synthesized what she learned from Lawren Harris¹s streamlined Theosophy, and added it to her understanding of Cezanne¹s nascent cubism. Van Gogh¹s art work showed her how to give life to her forms. Through Mark Tobey and Chinese painting she somehow developed a calligraphic style, which is singularly effective in making visible networks of energy. This is her unique contribution. Consumer Report: Admission to the gallery is $12.50. On the whole, if you¹re a student of Emily Carr, you have to go and see this show. Take this opportunity to see a fine selection of paintings by three women whose lives have so much to teach us. And accept the fact that Emily Carr - of Victoria, B. C. - is a painter for the world. She¹s that good. ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2002 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com The images on this page are from the book Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, by Sharyn Udall, published by Yale University Press (2000).