So the other day, I went looking for the arts in Vancouver. Visual arts, at least. So I figured, start at the main museum.
There are two, and the apartheid they imply is at once a little spooky. There's a world class museum of this region's aboriginal arts, known as the UBC Museum of Anthropology, which curates not just pre-contact cultural artefacts but also the arts of Aboriginal descendants. The UBC museum is a great place, and more about it later.
(Still, did I get that right? If you're anglo, your work is art, but if you're of aboriginal descent, your work is anthropology?)
Then, as the central all-purpose art museum of the city, there's the Vancouver Art Gallery. It certainly looks like the official city museum: A bannered historic building on a central square, facing a park, complete with a dramatic sweeping stairway leading to a permanently locked door, and sign telling you to enter around on the side. Looks like the major museum to me.
What's here? Four floors, of which three are visiting exhibitions. Currently, we have one floor of Table Scraps from Great Museums of Europe (currently Rodin, whose method of casting threw off lots of table scraps on the way to each Great Work). Then, we have two floors of Transgressive Postmodern Terminal Hipness, also mostly from Europe. Then, on the top floor, we have the permanent collection and the the sole exhibit area devoted to British Columbia artists.
It consists of one artist: Emily Carr. If you come looking for some sense of the range and diversity in the history of BC arts (as opposed to anthroplogies!), this appears to be it. And if you look around the rest of the arts scene, well, if it isn't Emily Carr, then it probably graduated from Emily Carr Institute, the leading local art school. Her name is a little like the name Washington in America; so ubiquitous that it's hard to focus on what if anything it means.
I like Emily Carr. Certainly, her biography appeals, perhaps because it is almost stereotypical for a great artist: a family ignorant of the arts, financial and health struggles, belated recognition, and above all a searing lifelong solitude. Photographs of her as an old woman, an obviously prickly character living in a camper in the rainforest, could almost have been Georgia O'Keeffe -- just subtract money, and add water.
Her hard-textured expressionist landscapes capture the enclosing and disorienting quality of the coastal rainforest, where even the outdoors is divided into hallways, rooms, closets. She renders foliage as cloth, but the cloth never flows; it feels more like velvet: heavy, static, suffocating. Sometimes it seems to be laminated or shellacked. You can walk in her rainforest and feel the repressions of her rural childhood. In short, this is classic mid-century expressionism. She learned it in Europe, brought it home, applied it to her world, and created something that met the need when BC finally became urban enough to need a great local artist.
In short, like anyone else that we'd call a success, she found a need and filled it, or perhaps a need, seeking fulfillment, found her. Either way, she has a permanent floor in the center of Vancouver, and more power to her. Still, I wonder how she'd feel to know that decades after her death, she'd still be the last word in official BC arts.