Today I went to the DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco to see an exhibit of paintings by J.M.W. Turner. It seemed a good way to take my mind off the painful thoughts about the terrorism in South Carolina this week. Some subjects are too painful to think about for very long, so I needed a break and joined the people eager to see the new exhibit of paintings.
Turner’s colorful paintings fill the galleries with light and the visitors crowded around each painting seemed absorbed in soaking up the color and vibrant emotion of the works. Turner was a British landscape painter, probably the best painter
England ever produced. Born in 1775, he began exhibiting his paintings early and continuing to develop and expand his talents throughout his life. His landscapes changed from being fairly straightforward presentations of natural scenes in the tradition of 18th century painters, to being explosions of color with vague outlines of buildings, people, and ships.
I walked through the galleries, stopping at each painting to admire the hazy forms and explosive colors. But as I looked at each painting, the scenes from a movie I saw a few months ago kept coming back to me—the critically acclaimed film Mr. Turner shows the artist working on some of these same paintings. As portrayed by actor Timothy Spall, Turner was a man dedicated to art but cruelly negligent about people. Despite his success as a painter, he refused to support his common law wife or his two daughters, and he sexually abused his housekeeper and treated her with contempt. He appeared to believe that his artistic talents justified his callous disregard for other people. Perhaps they did, but as I looked at his paintings, I wished that I had never seen the movie and learned the sordid details of his life. It’s too bad that that a movie once seen cannot be un-seen so that the images continue to influence any future view of the subject.
What is the value of an artist’s life compared with the value of the people (usually women and children) who suffer because of his vanity? (Of course, the genders may be reversed, but historically most artists have been men and most victims of artists have been women.) Do we really believe that all people are created equal, when people of genius are often treated
as though they are exempt from the normal moral norms of other people?
What is the value of art compared with human suffering? Do artists like Richard Wagner with his vicious anti-Semitism deserve to be honored and supported? Both Shelley and Byron, two of England’s greatest poets mistreated the women
who loved them and neglected their children. They left a legacy of beautiful poetry, but it does make me wonder whether spending a lifetime creating great art has any effect at all on the artist’s moral sense and human empathy.
What is the value of looking at great paintings, listening to fine music, and reading lovely poetry? They are produced by imperfect human beings, sometimes people we would despise if we knew them personally, but the art itself can be far better than the individual who created it. We have to accept creations made by flawed people, because we need poetry, music, and art to make our lives complete. And as Jean Cocteau once wrote: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. The artists and poets of the world create beauty despite their weaknesses, so I guess we should be grateful for what we learn from them and not ask for perfection in their lives.
Emily Carr was a precocious artist—when she was a child she surprised her parents by drawing the family dog, “I sat beside Carlow’s kennel” she writes in her autobiography, “and stared at him for a long time. Then I took a charred stick from the grate, split open a large brown-paper sack and drew a dog on the sack.” Emily was eight years old at the time. Her talent was obvious to her parents from that picture and so she was allowed to study drawing, but both of her parents died while she was young and there was little encouragement for her to do anything except to follow her sisters’ examples and prepare for marriage and families. Her path to becoming a recognized artist was long and difficult. As a teenager she persuaded her guardian to let her go from the family home in Vancouver down to San Francisco to study art, but later she returned home and gave up painting.
For several years she pursued an eccentric life, keeping a boarding house to earn money and to pay for a menagerie of animals as pets. Her family, she believed, were stuffy and conventional and limited her artistic possibilities. She spent years, which grew into decades, in pursuit of skills that would allow her to become the artist she wanted to be She had a passion for the natural world around her in western Canada. As a child she rode a pony into the woods where she marveled at the sights and sounds around her. On a trip to Alaska in her twenties she discovered the arts of the Native peoples of the Northwest and the towering totem poles they carved. All of these sights would eventually fuel her art, but it was a long time before the transformation began.
Vancouver was on the outskirts of the art world of the time—the turn of the twentieth century—and Vancouver was so far outside the center that Carr was not aware even of the art being produced in Toronto and the rest of Ontario. She became discouraged about her painting and even after she had a chance to study for a while in Paris, she still did not feel that she was capable of being an important artist. She suffered from the familiar female feeling that artists were men, and many of the male artists she met were content to patronize the women who attempted to become part of the art world. Then at last she met the artists who would open the world for her.
The Group of Seven painters who worked mainly in Ontario were Canadian artists who had found a new way of presenting the beauty of the North to others. Lawren Harris, in particular, became a mentor to Emily Carr and helped her to see that the pictures she was struggling to make of Northwestern Canada and the Indian life there were worth doing. When A.Y. Jackson, another member of the group, told her that “Too bad, that West of yours is so overgrown, lush—unpaintable,” Harris told her to keep faith in what she was doing. When she went back to Vancouver, she was able to continue and in the last decades of her life produced works that have lasted. Even though they are not yet as well known outside of Canada as they deserve, those of us who see them believe that Emily Carr may have been a late bloomer, but her work will live long.
Anyone who is interested in knowing more about Carr’s life should read her autobiography “Growing Pains”. She tells a good story and for a reader who wants more detail and more objectivity, there are several good biographies to choose from Best of all, however, try to see her paintings, either in person or in the reproductions available online and in print.