A Man of Our Time

Lawren Harris is once again jolted out of his casket, in reappraisals that paint him as a resolute modernist and urbanite

Is there more to say about Lawren Harris? One can be forgiven for saying no, as Harris has for decades been a steady source of lore for lovers of Canadian art: the pipe-smoking, tweed-clad scion of the crusty Harris clan (made rich through farm machinery manufacturing), majordomo of Toronto’s all-male Arts & Letters Club, patron of the Studio Building (a modernist artist commune of sorts that he commissioned and erected in Rosedale, of all places), the pioneering producer and purveyor of the new national imagery of the Group of Seven, his bearing erect at the easel, his hair stiff as a toilet brush (not my joke, alas, but source not for attribution). I could go on.

A steady stream of affirmations had begun unfolding even before his death in Vancouver in 1970 at the age of 85: a full survey in 1963 (under the direction of Ian McNair); Lawren S. Harris: Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906–1930 by Jeremy Adamson at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1978; Peter Larisey’s biography, Light for a Cold Land, in 1993; Andrew Hunter’s Americas Society exhibition in 2000, titled Lawren Stewart Harris: A Painter’s Progress; and James King’s affable soup-to-nuts biography, Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris, in 2012.

Then, just when it seemed that all veneration had been paid and the dust could safely settle, a fresh round of reckoning ensued, with Harris playing a standout role at the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 2012 exhibition Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven in London, England (although one British critic likened his mountain paintings to Disney’s animations for Fantasia), followed, two years later, by Ian Thom’s Lawren Harris: Canadian Visionary at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Nothing could have prepared us, though, for the hype and the hoopla of last year’s The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, a magisterial touring exhibition devoted to Harris’s Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes curated by the actor and comedian Steve Martin, with curators Cynthia Burlingham and Andrew Hunter.

The show, which wended its way northward to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2016 after showings in Los Angeles and Boston, represented both an opportunity and a problem. On the one hand, the exhibition was an undeniably grand occasion: a dazzling affirmation of a Canadian talent by a Hollywood star who saw in Harris a kindred spirit to Edward Hopper, the artists allied (in Martin’s view) in their explorations of solitude. On the other hand, it was an exhibition that, in its original inception, elided the many thorny issues that have grown up around the Harris legacy here in Canada, such as the suspiciously Aryan delight Harris took in “the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment” (as Harris explained it), emanating “cleansing rhythms” from its icy peaks and frozen vastness.

These views were of a piece with Harris’s fascination with theosophy—a spiritual and intellectual trend then popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (Kandinsky and Mondrian were also adherents.) If one reads theosophy now, it can seem faintly menacing—with its celebration of the purity of the northern race—not to mention downright kooky. Take Kandinsky’s assertion, in his landmark tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art, that “the life of the spirit may be fairly represented as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost,” one of several of his tightly prescriptive recipes for mystical exaltation. Theosophy had a number of adherents in the Toronto art world, but for many Harris’s leap into theosophy was a dive off the deep end.

Contemporary Canadian commentators (such as the late University of Waterloo professor Robert Linsley) have also criticized Harris’s notion of the white, uninhabited wastelands of Canada as problematic in their obliviousness to Canada’s indigenous (and conspicuously not white) peoples, particularly curious given Harris’s first-hand experience of the Inuit during his Arctic travels—we have his snapshots to prove it—not to mention his close friendship with Emily Carr, a settler artist known for her embrace of indigenous culture.

Rallying creatively to land this show in Toronto on a location-specific critical footing, Hunter devised a curatorial prelude that presented Harris’s early and heavily impastoed paintings of the slums of Toronto near where the AGO now stands (evidence, perhaps, of Harris’s discomfiture with social injustice and his own privileged place within it), giving audiences the backstory of his defining retreat to the North, or at least of his fascination with the idea of it (evidence, possibly, of his discomfiture with the social and ethnic compression of urban life). The show concluded by returning audiences to the multi-ethnic urban Toronto setting that Harris had left behind, merging Harris’s later abstracts with commissioned contemporary art by Toronto artists who are living and working in the city today—a kind of curatorial Hail Mary pass aimed at contextualizing Harris’s modernist angst in the here and now.

This coda proved confusing for some, but it seemed truly to jolt Harris out of his silk-lined casket once and for all, provoking us to wonder if we had ever really known this artist in the first place. Was he a trust-fund oddball or a true bohemian, a reactionary minter of jingoistic, white-on-white Canadiana or a radical unraveller of the artistic status quo?

Of course, he was to some extent all of these things, but as the newest project on Harris makes clear, he was first and foremost a striver. Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, the publication that accompanies the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s current exhibition of the same name, was organized by Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens, and it sets Harris within the fuller North American story,  teasing out further complexities in a legacy that seems to get more complicated with each passing year.

Yes, Harris was a purveyor of artistic nationalism, declaring a bold new Canadian art in the aftermath of the Great War alongside his fellow members of the Group of Seven. But he was also a committed internationalist, a perspective arising from his own experience of international art as a student in Germany and his many later trips to New York and other eastern U.S. cities, including Buffalo, where he took in a famous exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian landscape painting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1913. Harris took J.E.H. MacDonald along with him on that trip, and together they carried the artistic pollen of Swedish landscape artist Gustaf Fjæstad and his ilk back to the Toronto hive—a story ably told in Nasgaard’s 1984 exhibition The Mystic North, at the AGO. And it was Harris the internationalist, again, who held the Art Gallery of Toronto’s feet to the fire when the opportunity arose to bring Katherine Dreier’s famous 1926 Société Anonyme International Exhibition of Modern Art to Toronto—one of the first and most important exhibitions of abstract art in North America—insisting that he would rent a hall and present the exhibition himself if the burghers of Hogtown proved too sluggish to seize the opportunity.

Finally, this is the man who married the nice Toronto girl from a good family only to leave her for his best friend’s wife (Bess Housser) and bust a move, first to Hanover, New Hampshire, for three years (his uncle taught literature and philosophy at Dartmouth) and then to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he took the helm of the Transcendental Group of Painters. If Harris has come to be equated with the stuffy status quo of Canadian art, it is clearly time for a second look.

Higher States has some very particular fish to fry, hinging on Harris’s artistic transition from landscape to abstraction, and his movement from High Arctic and Canadian Shield minimalism to the geometric, faintly technological-seeming New Age forms of his later career, abstractions that always contained within them (à la Kandinsky) the suggestion of space. But unlike all previous books or exhibitions on Harris, Nasgaard and Owens go out of their way not just to mention the full North American context in which Harris worked, but also, wherever possible, to show it. (Even in Dennis Reid’s pioneering 1985 AGO exhibition Atma Buddhi Manas, an intrepid exhibition devoted entirely to Harris’s late abstract work, comparisons to his fellow artistic travellers were described rather than shown.) This move is all to the good; the argument has now been irrefutably made regarding Harris’s connection to the abstract trends of his time on both sides of the border, and we can see it and feel it for ourselves.

In his lead essay, “Harris’s Modernity: The Engineering Draughtsman’s Instruments,” Nas­gaard tells us much about the climate around abstraction in the Toronto of the 1920s, also charting the artist’s interactions with the New York scene. Citing art historian Sara Angel’s recent research on Lawren Harris’s scrapbooks—which reveal how Harris actively collected print reproductions of the works of such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth and Arthur Dove—Nasgaard deepens our understanding of Harris’s artistic path of abstracting from nature, even describing his initial discomfort in yielding to the allure of international trends (like abstraction) given his devoutly nationalistic opening position.

As well, he underscores Harris’s engagement with the modern world in all its manifestations, from product design to interior design, architecture and fashion. “Harris may have been spiritually minded,” Nasgaard writes, “but he was not a retiring monk. He lived a life immersed in modern culture and its traces are everywhere in his work.”

Nasgaard also explores the relationship of Harris (along with fellow Canadians Bertram Brooker, Jock MacDonald and Kathleen Munn) to the writings of theosophists Annie Besant and C.W Leadbeater (not to mention Blake and Whitman and the influential mystic Richard Maurice Bucke based in London, Ontario), and lets us in on his front-row attendance at Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux performance at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto in 1924, a kind of visual organ recital in which veils of colour and form flared silently onto a giant screen before the audience. In a way that now seems delightfully nerdy, Harris was always up for an experiment in thought and feeling.

Gwendolyn Owens’s essay “A High Sort of Seeing: Emerson, Harris and the American Moderns,” consolidates a range of research on Harris’s relationship to the American Transcendentalist tradition, which originated in literature with Emerson, and moved on through Whitman and Thoreau, influential on both sides of the border. (Canadian artist David Milne, for example, was deeply influenced by this line of thought.) Harris’s contemporaries noted earlier—Marin, Dove, Hartley, O’Keeffe—translated this tradition into a modern vernacular, all of them within the circle of the photographer and legendary modern dealer Alfred Stieglitz, and Harris rightly came to take his place within this milieu. Owens delves, too, into Harris’s exposure to the collector and artist Katherine Dreier, and to the lesser known (in historical hindsight) museum patron, stage designer and spiritual leader Nicholas Roerich, who showed Harris’s work at his museum on New York’s upper west side, a hotbed for likeminded mystic seekers.

Finally, Owens fleshes out the story of Harris’s Santa Fe years (1938 to 1940), a journey possibly prompted by his viewing of a show of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller’s collection at Dartmouth College, which featured a number of indigenous objects from the American Southwest. Once in New Mexico, Harris joined ranks with Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram, Stuart Walker and others to form the Transcendental Painting Group—all of them espousing the wish to make art that reflected inner states of being. It was only Harris’s need to have access to his inheritance, unavailable to him as a non-resident Canadian, that precipitated the couple’s move back to Canada. But his commitment to exploring the frontier of abstraction never abated.

This did indeed lead to some wild and woolly painterly experiments during his later Vancouver years, as Harris followed his bliss into geriatric oblivion—some of which feature fluffy brushwork and the synthetic colouration of arcade plush toys. Most critics and curators have demurely turned their gaze from these final pictures, and this exhibition does likewise, avoiding as well the faintly eugenicist vapours that cling to Harris’s theosophical musings. Having set their parameters clearly, though, the curators solidly achieve their goals: to explore the story of one of Canada’s most intrepid and industrious modern artists as he makes his journey into abstraction to take his place among his North American peers, commanding our attention for an artistic legacy that shows no signs of settling soon.