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

June 30 – September 9, 2001


Born in an era when roles and definitions were changing, Carr, Kahlo and O’Keeffe tested the limits of what it meant to be a woman and a professional painter. They inherited a late nineteenth-century crisis of cultural authority, which included an increasing sense of fragmentation–of self and of society. Ideas about autonomy, form and causality were everywhere questioned, from physics to art to the new psychology. These women grappled with that ambiguity, sensitive to tradition even as they explored modernity and modernism in their work. In broadest terms, all were romantic seekers of authentic experience, of personal wholeness and of the new and exotic experience. Each sought to reconcile modernity with the natural, the real and the vital. And, in that effort, their work questions (and sometimes collapses) oppositions between natural and unnatural forms, between conscious states, between reality and representation.

A profound identification with nature led each to a lifelong exploration of its forms and symbolism. In its broadest sense, each artist felt continuity and an inter-relatedness between herself and all existence; all life fell on a continuum. Vitalist theories of growth and energy, as they passed from nineteenth into twentieth-century philosophy and literature, interested all these women. Each read avidly the work of Walt Whitman and D.H. Lawrence.

More specifically, each artist perceived nature’s forms–tree, mountain, sea, sun, moon desert, rock, and bone–as both physical and symbolic reality. Each painter felt a special connectedness to the earth and to nature in her region, and the complex experience of nature as gendered invites detailed comparisons among the three. Carr translated her female consciousness into animal and plant imagery, while all three (but especially O’Keeffe) transformed the feminine self into individualistic landscape metaphors. Independently, Carr, Kahlo and O’Keeffe explored nature as a geography of the unconscious in which human forms and relationships masquerade as natural features and landforms.

Self-portrait with Monkey
Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954
Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938
oil on masonite
16 x 12 inches
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo New York
Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966

With significant individual differences, all three artists renewed the old psychological concept of landscape as female, finding and painting a personal rootedness in that metaphor. In O’Keeffe’s sensuous red hills, in Kahlo’s self portrait embraced by the earth-mother, in Carr’s paintings of totemic female forest spirits, we see nature’s energies embodied in unforgettable female imagery.

Edge of the Forest
Emily Carr , 1871-1945
Edge of the Forest, c.1933
86.7 x 58.4 cm
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Gift of Dr. and Mrs J. Murray Speirs, Dominion Gallery, Montreal

Each of the artists was vitally interested in the Native cultures of her area, and explored the use of indigenous design and technique in her work. And, at the same time, each reached for the healing power of Native myth as an antidote to personal fragmentation. Native cultures also seemed to hold keys to the primordial spirit of place, and all three painters explored those paths in an effort to absorb the essence of her region.

Personal spirituality as an aspect of identity also links the three women painters. Each questioned her familial ties to Christianity, and each explored Eastern philosophy, poetry and literature with visible results in her painting.

Many other subjects and sources of imagery were common-and central-to the work of Carr, Kahlo and O’Keeffe. The homes and studios each artist created for herself reflect her concept of domesticity, of shelter, of belonging and safety, of communing with urban or rural surroundings, or larger issues of control, engagement and isolation. Amid clutter or emptiness reside complex notions of self and identity; in the objects collected during a lifetime, as much as in one’s own artistic production, we see revealed a fundamental aesthetic.

The Exhibition

Frida Kahlo

Presented by Bell Canada

With support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund


Old Tree at Dusk

Emily Carr , 1871-1945
Old Tree at Dusk, c.1936
112.0 x 68.5 cm
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Gift of Col. R.S. McLaughlin

The Forest

Emily Carr , 1871-1945
The Mountain, c.1933
112.0 x 68.5 cm
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Gift of Dr. and Mrs Max Stern, Dominion Gallery, Montreal

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