Monday, October 12, 2009

Emily Carr by Lewis DeSoto

I seem to need these breaks into non-fiction every once in a while. Sometimes while reading, I'll feel overloaded, bloated with fictional images, ideas and characters. Then its time for non-fiction. It clarifies things; it resets my mind. And then I'm capable of picking up fiction again.

For this purpose, Lewis DeSoto's Emily Carr worked admirably well. I have mixed feelings about this book, but overall it did exactly what I wanted it to do: I learned things, I enjoyed the topic, and I ended up with new avenues to explore sometime in the future.

For those who don't know of her, Emily Carr was an artist and a writer, working on the west coast of Canada (based mostly in Victoria, British Columbia) in the early 1900s. She was inspired by the western rainforests and also by Native art, particularly the totem poles of the west coast First Nations. This slim little volume I have is one in the (very attractive) Extrordinary Canadians series, published by Penguin and edited by John Ralston Saul -- she's in good company with the likes of Norman Bethune, Lester B. Pearson, Nellie McClung, and Tommy Douglas also being profiled in the series.

I didn't know very much at all about Emily Carr before I picked up this book. Which is not to say I knew nothing; I've seen her paintings exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery, and I've always kind of liked them, although now that I know more about her I suspect I will appreciate them even more. She is definitely the sort of artist whose art stands on its own, but knowing something of her story makes it even more impressive.

As an entry into her life and ideas, this book is very useful. It was a very easy read, despite the fact that I had trouble with DeSoto's writing style. I liked this passage in a way (I think the ideas, perhaps?) but it also draws out some of the stylistic problems I had:

Carr brings the painting out from the forest, and what we see, what we perceive, is not a picture, but a sensation. The painting is pure sensation, which we in turn experience. Emily Carr, the painter, immersed herself totally in her own experience and created something that is partly the forest, partly herself, but mostly something else entirely.

Repetitive, no? That was quite common and it started to feel almost... patronizing, both to me as the reader and to Carr as the subject. I'm sure this was unintentional, because I certainly got the impression that DeSoto greatly admires Carr and was excited about the opportunity to bring her to a new generation of Canadians. But sometimes his writing seems either overwrought or judgemental. Futher, occasionally he swings into confusing conjecture at points, and that was where I found the book to be most irritating.

This is sometimes a problem with biography, and it may be something that I am sensitive to and so not everyone will find it as glaring. In an autobiography, even if the truth is obscured, glossed over, or stretched, the subject makes that decision. They may pass judgement on themselves and that's okay; they're well within their rights. I start to get uncomfortable when a biographer feels either gushy or judgmental about their subject -- I want a greater distance between biographer and subject.

The biographer has a very challenging job: they have to be factual and true to their subject's life without being boring. Where source material is lacking, they may try to extrapolate what was happening in the subjects head/life and why they did the things they did, who influenced them, that sort of thing. In some cases, biographers may even be tempted to superimpose self over the subject. This was where Emily Carr lost me; there was sometimes more DeSoto than Carr. Even if not always explicit (and sometimes it was) it felt heavily filtered at times. Some might enjoy this as a way to make Carr more accessible to the reader, but I did not.

Despite my problems with the style, I will still recommend this book because I think it fulfills its purpose as an introduction to Emily Carr. I suspect it will be highly useful to high school students in particular having to do a report on a Canadian artist, Canadian woman, or influential Canadian figure. I also recommend it for those who know nothing about Carr and would be interested in learning more. As a precursor to viewing a Carr exhibit, for example, this book would be excellent. It provides a satisfactory overview into facets of her life and it has made me interested in reading further, particularly in reading her own words.

I was going to post one of Carr's paintings, but instead let me point you to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's ARTBase Carr gallery. Four pages of Carr's paintings, sketches and even sculpture. I am particularly fond of Blue Sky.


Melwyk said...

I have the Lucy Maud Montgomery in this series but haven't read it yet... I really enjoy Emily Carr's own books so not sure I'd like this one as much - Emily is such a wonderful writer I'd probably just reread her books. :)

Unknown said...

Melanie - I'd say good call on that one! I don't think this one is worth it if you're already familiar with Carr.

Mandy said...

Yeah, with this little series I feel it's more of a handbook with a pretty cover, something to collect all 46 of, rather than a biography you would, say, cite from. If you happened to be writing a paper or something. They are pretty books but I was wondering about the content.
Good review!

Court said...

I love the book covers for all of the books in this series, but I've heard a few bad reviews about the actual books themselves. Not sure if I'll be picking any up to read them, but gosh they are pretty to look at!

Unknown said...

Mandy and Court - I think the length is the major problem. There's just not enough space to really do a thorough job. They feel as though their chief market is high school history students. But yes, absolutely lovely packaging...