Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery, Gift ofthe Mendel Family, 1965© 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris, Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper), circa 1934-1940
Lawren S. Harris, Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper),circa 1934-1940, oil on canvas, 127.8 x 152.6 cm
For five years in the 1920s, Lawren Harris made short annual sketching sojourns to the Rocky Mountains from his Toronto home base. But he made them count. Pictures like Mt. Lefroy and Maligne Lake, Jasper Park are among his most celebrated – touchstones, really, for the Group of Seven bandleader’s high-modern coming of age.
They’re a lot of other things, too, of course, and The Idea of North, Art Gallery of Ontario version, does some work to unpack what that might be. You might have heard of the show, conceived in conjunction with Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – as a historical corrective measure, introducing Harris to the American public as a confrère to such U.S. icons of modernist painting as Arthur Dove, Rockwell Kent and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The Thomson Collection at the Art Galleryof Ontario© 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris, "Lake Superior," circa 1923
Lawren S. Harris, "Lake Superior," circa 1923, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 126.9 cm
It opened in Los Angeles, at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, as a cool suite of works by Harris at the height of his cleansing naturalist spiritualism: Smooth mountain peaks and icebergs, islands floating in the blue of icy Lake Superior, all under the glow of an unmistakably beatific light. The show travelled from Los Angeles – an ideal-seeming launch pad for the art’s inarguably precious spirituality – to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he was smartly united with those artists with whom Martin had seen affinity: Dove, Kent, O’Keeffe.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Gift ofColonel R.S. McLaughlin© 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris, "Pic Island," circa 1924
Lawren S. Harris, "Pic Island," circa 1924, oil on canvas, 123.3 x 153.9 cm
It was probably the best version of the show: Plainly, if a little simplistically, situating Harris in a context we Canadians have so long resisted – in the swim of an international movement, instead of doing service as a nationalist icon.
It also raised a challenge for the suddenly wayward artist’s homecoming. The Idea of North, back in Toronto, couldn’t be the L.A. version – notable for so many of the Harris biggies in the same room, it nonetheless would feel a bit like a junior high textbook for Canadians – or the Boston version. Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, and Martin’s straight man throughout the journey, rose to the challenge.
At the AGO, Martin’s core show – a chapel, of sorts, with Harris’s disarmingly pure spiritual landscapes – is buffered at both ends by the very real world. Hunter begins with Harris’s early works of a rapidly industrializing Toronto, the core immigrant neighbourhood of The Ward, a ramshackle Victorian cluster of quickie houses and shacks loomed over by rising factories and warehouses.
Art Gallery of Ontario Gift of the Canadian National Exhibition Association, Toronto, 1965 © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris
Lawren S. Harris, "Old Houses, Toronto, Winter," 1919
Lawren S. Harris, "Old Houses, Toronto, Winter," 1919, oil on canvas, 82.6 x 98.1 cm
He couples these images with an actual reality, inflecting Harris’s gritty impressionism with photographs from the city archives taken by Arthur Goss, an official photographer whose work has been posited in recent years as important social documentation. (Goss, by and large, didn’t intend it that way; he was dispatched to The Ward by such civic units as the health department to capture living conditions in the hardscrabble district.)
Conflating Harris and Goss builds a context for Hunter’s central argument: That Harris, the scion of the Massey-Harris industrial empire, was burdened with a deep social conscience, and unease with the growing gap between have and have-not in the rapid churn of modernity afflicting his hometown.
It’s purely speculative, but not unreasonable, to imagine Harris’ social conscience being at least the partial product of ruling-class guilt. The Massey-Harris factories, which produced heavy machinery for industry and farming, were at least partly to blame for the filthy squalor of early industrial Toronto, not to mention the rapid urbanization and over-crowding the era’s promise of work quickly produced.
Though it was neither his intention nor fault, Harris lived high on the misery of others, and his wealth provided ample room to, in his way, give back. As a young artist, he took up with anti-capitalist leagues, such as the one run by Dr. Samuel Bland, a minister and champion of the urban poor. A glowering portrait of Bland, by Harris, has hung in the AGO for years, void of this important context; here, it presents as lionization of a man the artist much admired for his tireless efforts to build a bulwark behind which the poor could shelter from the exploitation of the rich.
And as for those shimmering mountainscapes, hanging in serene silence just next door? To enter that room is, at last, a very different experience.
“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms,” Harris wrote in 1926. “Cleansing” suddenly takes on stark meaning here. It’s often been remarked – more than fairly – that the landscapes of Harris and the rest of the group are a little too clean, purged of the inconvenience of such things as First Nations peoples, who were undeniably present on many of his sojourns. (On a recent walk through the show, Wanda Nanibush, the AGO’s first curator of Canadian and indigenous art, and an Anishinaabe, commented that the land Harris depicts is in fact the source of great spiritual solace for her people.)
Whether such ethnic cleansing was intentional or not (likely not; it’s not an excuse so much as an explanation that Harris was no more afflicted by the wilful ignorance of his times than anyone else), Hunter makes the provocative point that cleansing, for Harris, was a powerfully personal thing.
Hunter wraps the show with a passage about the contemporary city, and has sprinkled contemporary works throughout, like large-scale photographs by Anique Jordan, an African-Canadian artist concerned with the erasures of minorities amid Toronto’s supercharged economic exclusions. But that gesture falls a little flat, unbound to the story of an artist whose naive sympathies lost out to his privileged idealism.
Weighed down by the social ills of the modernizing city, Harris sought not just solace, but escape; and those idealized landscapes, which led, in short order, to a period of heavily spiritualized abstraction, are his earnest attempt to build for himself a new world when the real one became too much to bear. You can see Harris moving from the darkness of the city, literally, into the light – a land of make-believe that, it so happens, dovetailed nicely with modernism’s unreachable ideals of a democratized world achieved through erasure.
Start again, they said, and so we did: Bulldozing bustling communities like The Ward to build sanitized expanses of concrete and space-age forms (Toronto city hall and Nathan Phillips Square) in the name of progress. Wipe it clean, modernism said, leaving as much behind as it possibly could. The past has a way of catching up with you though, and finally for Harris, at the AGO, it has. Think of it as a coming of age: Uncomplicated national icons make for easy understandings and absurd omissions. In this era of extraordinary diversity and a world turned upside-down once again, a more complicated Lawren Harris is an icon we can take forward with us, not leave behind.