With the opening this weekend of a major show spotlighting the Group of Seven member, a look at the first retrospective exhibition of his work in 1948.
Lawren Harris has long drawn attention to the Art Gallery of Ontario. While The Idea of North exhibition that opens this weekend may claim as much interest for Steve Martin’s curatorial role as the works themselves, back in 1948 the gallery (then known as the Art Gallery of Toronto) deemed Harris worthy of being the first living artist to be honoured with a career-spanning retrospective.
The gallery looked for a recognized artist whose work influenced the development of Canadian fine art. The exhibition program described how Harris fit these criteria:
“In shaping the course of Canadian art by his goodwill and enthusiasm he has encouraged and given practical assistance to many other artists. He does not believe that artists should lead obscure and humble lives, but rather it is a reproach to a country to show no concern for its artists. With Dr. [Frederick] Banting, he believed ‘that no country can afford to neglect its creative minds.’
“He made a valiant effort to impress on the government the need of cultural centres in Canada. He paints, he plans, writes, broadcasts, and lectures. He is always the happy warrior who strives in a worthy cause.”
The works presented covered Harris’s entire career to that point, including key works displayed in The Idea of North like North Shore, Lake Superior. Unlike the current show (apart from samples such as one that almost foreshadows the design of Toronto City Hall), the 1948 exhibition included the abstract style he favoured from the mid-1930s onward. Harris’s reason for painting abstractions was that they offered “more imaginative scope in this way of seeing and painting and a more exacting discipline,” and as a vehicle for expressing ideas which wouldn’t work in representative forms.” Harris refused to title his abstract works, as names were “likely to interfere with the onlooker’s direct response.”
The exhibition’s opening on October 15, 1948 was preceded by an honorary dinner at the Arts and Letters Club for Harris, who came to Toronto from his then-base in Vancouver. Surviving members of the Group of Seven, including A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley, attended. “There was a comradely gaiety,” observed Globe and Mail fine arts correspondent Pearl McCarthy, “and we were all such good-natured human beings in that bond of art!” Jackson toasted Harris, followed by reminiscences from Lismer.
After dinner, the dignitaries headed to the gallery to view the five rooms dedicated to Harris’s work. The exhibit began with sketches Harris did for Harper’s magazine in 1909, which the artist insisted were among the world’s worst illustrations. It then moved into his depictions of The Ward neighbourhood, in which the Telegram saw “authentic charm and dignity, a secret sort of beauty in the literal early canvasses of old Toronto street scenes.”
Following through the rest of the exhibition, McCarthy noticed that Harris “always had a kind of spiritual resplendency which has transcended little questions of good taste and theoretic niceties.” The Telegram compared his 1920s landscapes to Chinese painters who sought “to distill the essence of landscape rather than to record it literally.” Literary critic Northrop Frye felt that Harris was “the type of painter who grows through states of metamorphosis, breaking his life into periods of experiment: the type represented by Turner and Picasso. This is the revolutionary type, and Harris is Canada’s only revolutionary artist.”
Harris rejected claims that contemporary Canadian art was experiencing a slump, feeling that the overall work had grown better, especially among Les Automatistes in Montreal. He believed the experience of the Group of Seven could not be duplicated, “for nothing originates in terms of the time, the place, and the people, in conjunction with values in art from the world generally.”
The exhibition ran for a month. The gallery has presented several major Harris shows since then, including a focus his pre-1930 work in 1978 and a retrospective of his later pieces in 1985. For The Idea of North, the AGO is expanding the exhibition shown in Boston and Los Angeles by adding archival photos and contextual content related to Harris’s depictions of The Ward, as well as a series of contemporary commissions based on themes related to the show.
Additional material from Lawren Harris Paintings 1910-1948 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1948); the October 16, 1948 and January 1, 1949 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 14, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1948 edition of the Telegram.