Saturday, August 29, 2009

Emily and Lee Nan: Oriental Painting

Seasons by Guzi Lui

Emily Carr was a friend of Lee Nan, a Chinese artist who lived in Victoria. Emily felt an artistic kinship with Lee, and a profound sense of empathy for him - for he was marginalized and an outsider. I suspect that Emily understood that, for her eccentricities separated her from the outisde stream of life. She would occasionally be seen pushing a baby buggy (pram) along the sidewalks of Victoria, with Woo, her monkey inside it.

In her September 16th, 1933 diary, Emily writes of receiving an invitation from Lee Nan to attend a personal exhibition of his works. He sent out a scant seven invitations. Emily recognized that unless she intervened, his show would be a public failure. So, with that she telephoned friends within the arts to tell them about it and encourage them to come. Few came.

Emily writes:

Lee Nan met each guest and said a few words. His English is very difficult but his face beamed with nervous smiles. I love his work. It is simple and serene and very Oriental. He bookkeeps in a Chinese store, and has not a great deal of time to paint. His subjects are mostly birds and flowers with a few landscapes. They are mostly watercolours. The birds live and are put into their space just right. There is a dainty tenderness about them and one is not conscious of paint but of spirit. As I stood by little Lee Nan something in me went out to him, sort of the mother part of me. I wanted to sheild him from the brutal buffets of the "whites" and their patronizing (Quite good for a Chinaman, aren't they? they say.)

"Did you send out many invitations?" I ask.
"Oh yes, " he said and stopped to count. "Seven."

I could imagine the labour those seven neat little half sheets had cost. I have telephoned a lot of people including two newspaper women. I hoped they would give him some write ups. It would please him greatly. I, and my work feel brutally material beside Lee Nan and his. I ask for the price of a sketch. "Oh, I don't know. Who would want it?" He replied.

I went again to Lee Nan's exhibition. Not one of the old sticks I told about it who thanked me so smugly, and said they would surely go, had been. A great old fuss there would have been if it had been someone in society. Lee Nan was smiling cheerfully. He expects so little. He has sold three sketches and thinks people will come by and by. He would like me to teach him. I feel more that I would like him to teach me. He has what I lack, an airy, living daintyness, more of the "exquisite" of life. There is a purity and sweetness about his things, much life and little paint. How different the Oriental viewpoint is! I should think we hurt them mightily with our clumsy heaviness.

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