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Lawren Harris: Northern Exposure

The Canadian modernist painter Lawren Harris will be getting some long-overdue attention in the U.S., thanks to the comedian and collector Steve Martin and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Lawren Harris, Mt. Lefroy, 1930

Lawren Harris, Mt. Lefroy, 1930, oil on canvas, 52 1⁄2 x 60 1⁄2 in.;

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In today’s plugged-in, shrunk-down, “connected” world, it seems incredible that a major modern artist could still be all but unknown outside his native country. But that is exactly the case with Lawren Harris. As a member of the pioneering Group of Seven painters, Harris helped make Canada’s first foray into modernism around the time of World War I. In the mid-1930s he moved to the United States and co-founded (with Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson) the Santa Fe-based Transcendental Painting Group, which cultivated a distinctive form of abstraction. Just before World War II, Harris returned to Canada, where he remained until his death in Vancouver in 1970. Today he is firmly fixed in the country’s collective memory, considered indispensible to Canadian culture and national identity. His works are in all the major museums, and his landscape paintings—along with those of his colleagues in the Group of Seven—are often reproduced on posters and calendars. Outside Canada, however, Harris has hardly been heard of.

An effort to remedy this collective blind spot is now under way, spearheaded by the comedian, actor, writer, and art collector Steve Martin, a longtime Harris enthusiast. One evening recently, Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, was a guest at a dinner party at Martin’s house, where she noticed a small Harris painting on the wall and was immediately intrigued. Several weeks later, during a business trip to Toronto, Philbin had the opportunity to tour the Art Gallery of Ontario’s substantial collection of Harrises. She conceived the idea of introducing his work to U.S. audiences with a show at the Hammer and invited Martin to curate it. He delightedly agreed, and the result is “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris,” co-organized with the AGO and with the curatorial collaboration of the Andrew Hunter of that museum and Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer. The exhibition opens at the Hammer on October 11 and will travel to the AGO and to the MFA Boston in 2016.

Although its subtitle is “The Paintings of Lawren Harris,” in fact the exhibition covers only one phase of the artist’s work, the landscapes he made during the ’20s and early ’30s in the Canadian north—a term which, because the country’s population centers cluster close to the U.S. border, takes in everything from Lake Superior to the Rockies to the farthest reaches of the Arctic. Although Harris painted realist urban scenes in the nineteen-teens and total abstractions from the early ’40s on, the northern landscapes are his most iconic works and have generally been considered to be his best or at least most characteristic.

Without a doubt they are extremely powerful, visionary paintings that transport the viewer to a place beyond the bounds of normal human experience and perception.

Harris’ north is a silent, forbidding, yet fascinating place that often more closely resembles a moonscape or a dreamscape than any place in waking life on this planet. In Icebergs, Davis Strait (1930), the huge frozen monoliths tower above a dark sea, apparently viewed by the artist from a curving shore composed entirely of ice. The color scheme of this painting consists only of various blues and purples, along with gray and white. The icebergs’ surfaces are made up of distinct, regular stripes of color, which are echoed by the regularly spaced ripples on the surface of the water, which seem to radiate out from the icebergs. Lake Superior (1923), though not an Arctic scene, has a similar pattern of almost uncannily regular stripes—in this case the shafts of pale sunlight that penetrate the clouds to fall on strange, purplish lump-like islands and on the lake itself, which also displays ripples rendered in related colors—white, pearl gray, aquamarine, and several shades of blue. The overall effect of these paintings is one of active power behind the stillness; the striations in the sky, land, and water could be electromagnetic lines of force.

Why was Harris drawn northward? On the most basic geographical level, in Canada the north is synonymous with wilderness—in order to experience pure nature, with minimal or no interference from human civilization, that is basically the only direction in which to travel. The north naturally has a magnetic draw on the Canadian imagination. The phrase “The Idea of North” actually comes from the title of an innovative radio broadcast created by the pianist, composer, and writer Glenn Gould in 1967. In that piece, Gould said, “Like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North—I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider.
And the North has remained, for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about and, in the end, avoid.”

Harris chose not to avoid it—a decision made entirely in the service of art, unmotivated by any interest in outdoorsmanship for its own sake. Harris was a tenderfoot, not a polar explorer like his contemporary Rockwell Kent, whose Greenland paintings in some ways resemble Harris’. The near north of the Ontario forests and lakes was easily accessible, a welcome, contemplative respite from city life, but the far north was another matter altogether. Harris visited it only briefly, in the summer of 1930, when he and his friend A.Y. Jackson, another member of the Group of Seven, sailed aboard the SS Beothic to Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic, off the Davis Strait. But those few weeks were decisive and gave Harris enough raw material with which to create a major body of work once he returned to the studio.

From a purely formal point of view, what Harris found in the north, especially in the Arctic, was a radically simplified landscape that, visually speaking, fed into his modernist intention to strip down objects and space to their geometric essentials. In a way, the barren northern landscape, with its sharp angles and restricted palette, is almost pre-digested for abstraction; there, nature has already done some of the work for a painter who wants to make a modernist landscape. Burlingham observes that one of Harris’ most famous paintings, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), which depicts a solitary, blasted tree trunk protruding from an island in the lake, “looks stylized to us,” but according to fellow curator Andrew Hunter, “who’s been there, it really looks like this.” In the north, the unreal is the real.

But there is a deeper reason, beyond formalism, why Harris embraced the northern landscape as his prime subject for a decade and a half. In common with generations of landscape painters dating back to the early Romantics, he found spiritual sustenance in the wilderness, a mystical connection to transhuman realities which he believed it was the purpose of art to communicate. Harris’ northern paintings are beautiful, but they also tend to be slightly frightening, or at least eerie. They exhibit that combination of wonder and terror that the Romantics termed the sublime, a sensation said to arise from the encounter between human beings and the divine power in nature, a power that is revealed most fully in nature’s wildest and most extreme places.

To understand Harris’ motivations for painting his northern landscapes, it is important to take into account his adherence to Theosophy, a religio-philosophical movement founded in the late 19th century by the Russian-born occultist Helena P. Blavatsky. Harris’ ideas about art and what it can and should do—like those of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and the Transcendental Painting Group, among others—are intimately bound up with Theosophy. In an article in The Canadian Theosophist in 1933, Harris called beauty a “phase of truth” and wrote that “the arts epitomize, intensify and clarify the experience of beauty for us, as nothing else can.” He continued, “And until such time as we become perfected in beauty, the arts will be for us of the highest, practical importance in that they mirror for us, in some degree, the essential order, the dynamic harmony, the ultimate beauty, that we are all in search of, whether consciously or not.” Between the early 1920s and 1934, the northern wilderness was for Harris the primary wellspring of this dynamic harmony, the place where he personally discovered and experienced the essential order that he tried to communicate, through painting, to others who may have been knowingly or unknowingly in search of it.

After 1934, Harris chose to take another path, toward pure abstraction. He had begun to feel constrained by the demands of creating a Canadian national art and was eager to transcend all cultural and local limitations. His decision to start painting in a new way coincided with his decision to leave Canada and live in the United States. Although he always forged ahead and never considered returning to figuration, Harris’ abstract works have in general been less well received by critics and the public than his landscapes. In the exhibition catalogue, Hunter writes that Harris’ efforts “to develop a transformative abstraction … never really clicked … Harris had too many ideas and ideals he wanted to capture in his paintings to succeed in this intense momentum of reduction that was arguably the dominant focus of late modernism. … His later works reveal a deep commitment and ambition, but they never quite achieve the intensity and conviction of his northern landscapes.” On the other hand, Burlingham says, “Many people agree that the northern landscapes from the 1920s through 1934 represent the epitome of Harris’ work. I have a feeling that there hasn’t been the final word on the abstract paintings.”

As far as the iconic landscapes are concerned, they are not yet iconic in the U.S. or the rest of the world, a state of affairs that Burlingham finds hard to explain. “Why has Lawren Harris not been known outside Canada? I am still looking for the answer to that question. Sometimes artists get lost in history.” Harris and the other Group of Seven artists had a few shows in the U.S. during the 1920s, including at the MFA Boston, garnering some positive critical attention and a few sales to museums, but after that interest petered out. Burlingham speculates that while Harris “was a tireless promoter of art itself and other artists, a leader and a team player, the promotion he did was for other artists” rather than for himself. Whatever the cause may be, the Hammer show will give Harris’ visionary landscapes a level of exposure here that they have never had before and allow viewers a chance to experience the “dynamic harmony” they encompass, just as the artist wanted them to.

By John Dorfman

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: September 2015

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