Los Angeles

Lawren Harris: The Idea of North at the Hammer Museum

“You need to understand, Patricia, that every Canadian recognizes these paintings,” so explained my friend and guide, a native Torontonian, as we walked through The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris at the Hammer Museum. “Canadians who have no other art-historical point of reference know who the Group of Seven are.” This school of early 20th-century Canadian landscape painters occupies the periphery of my knowledge, and Harris’s paintings were previously entirely unknown to me. The pull they have on the collective imagination of the Canadian populace, their representation of Canadian identity, was therefore inscrutable. I found these highly stylized landscapes absent of any weight that nationalism projects on or from them. And yet I was fascinated by that absence, by their abstraction from actual place and site of belonging.

Lawren Harris. Mt. Lefroy, 1930; oil on canvas. 52.5 x 60.4 in. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Purchased 1975. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

Lawren Harris. Mt. Lefroy, 1930; oil on canvas; 52.5 x 60.4 in. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Purchased 1975. © Family of Lawren S. Harris.

The exhibition focuses on three groups of paintings that Harris made roughly between 1922 and 1930 (with one later work from 1934–1940) of the geographic locales for which the artist is most well known: Lake Superior, the Arctic, and the Rockies. The artist traveled only once to the Arctic, in 1930 on a research and supply expedition, but made repeated trips to the other sites. Harris, along with the other members of the Group of Seven, possessed an ambition at this time to create a national art of Canada through depictions of its landscape, “to articulate a sense of belonging in a particular place, imbued with the essential characteristics of a distinct terrain.”[1] Harris additionally sought to render the mysteries that connect humanity with the divine—theosophical leanings that would later pull him away from this nationalistic aim.

The paintings in The Idea of North are fluid, frictionless semblances of place, composed of rhythmic forms that fold and undulate. They are ideas instead of sites. Each group shares the distinctive traits that signal the artist’s style during this period: centrally composed landscapes with slaking light and scant vegetation. Trees are bare or dead. The time of day is indistinguishable. Mountains and clouds predominate, homologously shaped by the same forces: wind, water, snow. Architecture is almost entirely absent—the notable exception being the Inuit structure in Eskimo Tent, Pangnirtung Baffin Island (1930) whose facets and form are barely distinguishable, except in color, from the glacial field in which it resides. Harris’s landscapes are unpopulated, and we are situated at their edge, peering in, as if not to sully them.

Lawren Harris. Pic Island, ca. 1924; oil on canvas; 48.5 × 60.63 in. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Gift of Colonel R. S. McLaughlin. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

Lawren Harris. Pic Island, ca. 1924; oil on canvas; 48.5 × 60.63 in. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Gift of Colonel R. S. McLaughlin. © Family of Lawren S. Harris.

Walking through the exhibition, I often found the preparatory oil sketches on beaverboard to be more compelling than their larger counterpoints on canvas. The sketches retain their impasto brushwork and some traces of the physical heft of the geological formations they depict. For example, in the earliest version of Mount Lefroy (ca. 1925), the jagged rock scrapes across the thick sheet of snow that smothers the peak; one senses the creaking weight of cold and the flinty edge of sharp ravines, even as the receding mountains and clouds are rendered as quick, flat shapes. In the 1929 sketch, the background is completely bare, absent of all other elements, creating a foreboding winter sky. The entire scene is rendered in deep blacks, flat grays, electric blue, and vivid white. The rocks now curve around and over the mountain as the snow swoops down its flank, but deep shadows still suggest unscalable precipices.

Lawren Harris. North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926; oil on canvas; 40.25 x 50.13 in. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris. Photo: ©NGC.

Lawren Harris. North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926; oil on canvas; 40.25 x 50.13 in. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada. © Family of Lawren S. Harris. Photo: ©NGC.

In the final 1930 painting, warm woody browns and gold replace the blacks and gray. The mountain curves out almost bulbously, its peak and ridgeline a sinuous divide between dark and light. The overcast sky is filled with cirrostratus clouds that ripple out from a central cumulous one that crowns the peak. The waves echo the comb-like folds of snow that bend and billow down the slope. The forms recall the cylindrical, mechanical limbs of Léger’s figures.

Lawren Harris. Mount Thule, Bylot Island, 1930; oil on canvas. 32.25 × 40.25 in. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Gift of the Vancouver Art Gallery Women’s Auxiliary. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

Lawren Harris. Mount Thule, Bylot Island, 1930; oil on canvas; 32.25 × 40.25 in. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Gift of the Vancouver Art Gallery Women’s Auxiliary. © Family of Lawren S. Harris.

It is this mechanistic rendering where Harris’s intertwined national ambitions and theosophical longings are most readily in evidence. He sought to create an identity shaped at “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.”[2] His vision was of a country that could endlessly absorb and remake itself, without depletion or the “heavy psychic blanket” that lay over its neighbor to the south.[3] Canada’s isolation meant that it stood apart, unperturbed. Our measurement of time, in hours, does not even register on these snow-covered rocks. Instead, the glacial till holds the secrets of epochs. Harris’s vision for his nation was completely of its moment: projecting the frictionless progress of modernity and a future endlessly reshaped by our hands. And yet, the legacy of his landscapes seems most potently to be (in this fragile moment of the Anthropocene) how abstract the world remains to us, how far apart from it we stand.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through January 24, 2016; it was co-organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in Toronto, where the exhibition will be on view July 2 to September 11, 2016. Writer, actor, and collector Steve Martin organized the exhibition with curator Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer and Andrew Hunter of the AGO; art historian Karen Quinn also contributes an essay to the catalogue.


[1] Andrew Hunter, “Loomings (Cape Dorest, Los Angeles, Toronto, Brantford),” in The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris  (New York: Prestel, 2015), 53.

[2] Lawren Harris, from the exhibition wall text.

[3] Ibid.

[4] My appreciation to Dara Solomon, director of the Ontario Jewish Archive, for her insights and observations.

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