Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gendered Tree-Scapes in the Art of Emily Carr and Judith Wright

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gendered Tree-Scapes in the Art of Emily Carr and Judith Wright

Article excerpt

This essay explores the impact of gender, colonial inheritance, and European modernism upon the representation of landscape in general, and trees in particular, in the work of two female artists who achieved iconic national status in the twentieth century: Canadian painter Emily Carr and Australian poet Judith Wright.

This essay examines the shared complexity of colonial/postcolonial relationships to the land of Canada and Australia as represented by two iconic female artists: Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945) and Australian poet Judith Wright (1915-2000). Both artists sit in uneasy relationship with the social, political, and cultural worlds into which they were born, and both strive to re-imagine the relationship between culture and nature through a radical representation of land and aboriginality. (1) Although chronologies of these two artists' careers overlap only briefly, in the 1940s (with one artist's work beginning whilst the other's is ending), a mapping of their biographical and artistic data reveals surprising points of intersection. Such transcultural and transnational work is useful in that it serves to highlight commonality--in this case, the shared history and effects of being born a white woman in the (post)colonial worlds of Canada and Australia in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century (2)--and to illuminate the differences that singular circumstance and cultural specificity make to the artists' lives and work. This essay brings each artist's work into dialogue with the other's in order to highlight the significance of gender to the representation of land and trees, and to the reception of their work; to identify the misreadings that have attended nationalist appropriation of their art; and to trace the translation of European modernism into their different but similarly gendered (post) colonial contexts. Additionally, in bringing these artists together, we hope to encourage dialogue between creative discourses that tend to preclude and exclude one another.

Although relatively unusual nowadays, comparisons between painting and poetry were once commonplace. In Europe, from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century, humanistic theories of painting emphasized the relationship between the two, drawing authority from Horace's words in his Ars Poetica--"ut pictura poesis" (91), as is painting, so is poetry. Primarily renowned today for her painting, Emily Carr first came to wide public attention and acclaim with the publication of Klee Wyck, a volume of autobiographical stories that won the Governor General's award for literature in 1941. Carr's journals, begun in 1927 with her momentous journey to the East Coast to meet the artists of the Canadian Group of Seven, record the degree to which she considered writing to be an important stimulus to her art: "trying to find equivalents for things in words helps me find equivalents in painting" (Hundreds 22).

For Carr, words were a device used to clarify specific feeling about place that enabled the effective translation of that feeling into paint on canvas, whereas for Australian poet Judith Wright, visual images drawn from nature were used to represent and evoke powerful feeling in her poetry. She spoke of the language of poetry as the poet's material of art, just as notes of music are for the composer and paints for the painter. In a discussion of the relationship between the work of art and reality, she uses still-life painting as her example ("Poem" 18-19). Wright's art, like Carr's, transforms a personal experience of nature into a powerful symbol. An example might be Wright's use of the eucalypt or gum tree--a feature, like the pine in Canada, that is both unique and ubiquitous in the natural national landscape. The poem "South of My Days," one of the earliest and now-iconic poems in Wright's extensive oeuvre, is exemplar. The poem is descriptive of the New England (northern New South Wales) landscape of her youth, and its gums are so particular to the region and yet generic to Australia as not to require identification:

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite--
clean, lean, hungry country. … 
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