Half of new Emily Carr work found in Canada

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The Independent Culture

Art historians are abuzz over the discovery of one half of a previously unknown painting by artist Emily Carr, who captured Canada's West Coast in bold, impressionistic works depicting its forests and lost aboriginal villages.

But what became of the other half of the new painting remains a mystery. The original painting appears to have been cut in two, with each half likely painted over.

The new find was made as curators removed one of Carr's celebrated later works, "Bear Totem," from its frame.

Paint that didn't match the colors of the work could be seen stretching from the image's border to the cut edge of the canvas, said Kathryn Bridge, manager of collections at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the provincial capital.

"It looks as though Carr had re-purposed a larger canvas, cut it in half and painted smaller works on each half," said Bridge. "You can see beneath the surface that there is something there."

"Bear Totem" dates from 1937 and depicts a scene from the aboriginal Haida Gwaii village of Massett, 870 kilometres (540 miles) north of Victoria, but it's not clear what the newly-discovered painting beneath shows and when it was painted.

An X-ray examination has confirmed the find, but discerning the hidden image will require infra-red imaging, yet to be completed.

"It was just a wonderful thing to find," said Bridge. "Of course you can never separate the two (layers of paint on the canvas), but it makes you speculate. Was it something she didn't like, or was she so hard up at one point in her career that she needed to re-use the canvas?"

The search is now on for the other half of the re-used canvas.

Curators and art historians have examined other works by Carr in the museum's collection, as well as collections in Vancouver, but have yet to find one with similar tell-tale paint along the edge.

Since her death in 1945, Carr's reputation has been cemented as one of Canada's pre-eminent painters, buoyed by interest from international collectors who pushed the price of her later paintings into the millions of dollars.

Two major presentations on Carr will be running in Victoria, Carr's birthplace, this summer: the Royal British Columbia Museum exhibit on Carr's early life, 'The Other Emily;' and a career retrospective that is already open at the Victoria art gallery through 2013.

The museum exhibit matches her paintings with all of Carr's known letters, manuscripts and sketchbooks to complete a portrait of the young artist, and to show a side of Carr often lost beneath the image of the stern, aloof and eccentric image the artist projected in later life.

It also throws a spotlight on another mystery: the identity of a young man seen gazing amorously at the young Carr in a pair of photographs taken after a tennis match on her parents' Victoria lawn in 1895.

Carr famously remained unmarried throughout her life. Bridge speculates the man may be the one who broke the young artist's heart.

The scene seems to match one described in one of Carr's autobiographical short stories, where a suitor steals a kiss from Carr's character after a tennis game.

"Soon I found out the young man was only flirting with me, but too late, my heart was lost," Carr wrote. "It took 15 years to pull myself out."

Bridge hopes someone who sees the photo might be able to help historians unlock the secret of the young man's identity.

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