Historicist: Lawren Harris Transcends
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Historicist: Lawren Harris Transcends

“We lived in a continuous blaze of enthusiasm…above all we loved this country and loved exploring and painting it.” – Lawren Harris, 1970.


Aboard the Beothic Jackson Captain Falk and Harris LAC 1930

Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson aboard the government supply ship Beothic, 1930. Library and Archives Canada

Born in Brantford in 1885, to the family who owned the Harris agricultural equipment empire, Lawren Harris first came to Toronto to study at St. Andrew’s College. When he enrolled at University of Toronto, his mathematics professor persuaded him to focus on painting.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Toronto had few galleries and museums. A community of expat Canadian artists was forming in Paris, the largest city in Europe. But instead, Lawren Harris went to Berlin in 1904 and enrolled in studies with three private teachers, including Franz Skarbina, co-founder of the Berlin Secession a group that, in their move towards Modernism, seceded from the artistic establishment.

In Berlin, Harris became aware of modern art through the Berlin Secession, but was also drawn to the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, who vast open landscapes provoked a heightened spiritual awareness that would follow in his own work. Perhaps the most important meeting during Harris’ four years in the German capital was with Paul Thiem, a poet, philosopher, and regional painter, who is believed to have introduced Harris to the Theosophical Society, self-described as “an unsectarian body of seekers after the truth, who endeavour to promote brotherhood and strive to serve humanity.” The Theosophical Society would figure prominently later in his artistic direction.

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Members of the Group of Seven at the Arts and Letters Club, Elm Street. Archives of Ontario

When Harris returned to Toronto, in 1908, he settled into a rhythm of painting in both the city and in the Canadian wilderness. He met and befriended J.E. H. Macdonald, who would work as a commercial artist with other Group of Seven members at Grip Limited. While the most important artist group of the early 20th century was not formally established until 1920, they began working alongside one another as early as 1911. The group would meet at the Arts and Letters Club on Elm Street and at the Studio Building on Severn Street near the Rosedale Ravine (both buildings are now National Historic Sites of Canada).

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Lawren Harris, Winter in the Ward, 1919.

It was the Studio Building that facilitated the meeting of Harris and A.Y. Jackson. Harris, who financed with building with the support of Dr. James MacCallum, was preoccupied by the construction and unable to produce any work at his existing studio on the northwest corner of Bloor and Yonge. He rented it to Jackson, who had just arrived from Montreal. Following its completion in 1914, the Studio Building was home to a rotation of artists. Tom Thomson, who had worked at Grip Limited, left the agency to become the first artist at the Studio Building. It was during this period that Harris also retreated to The Ward to paint its ramshackle houses and closely knit community with bustling streets. (These are rare examples of Group of Seven works that feature human figures.)

The formalization of the Group of Seven came with their first exhibit at the Art Gallery of Toronto, in 1920. Reviews were mixed, with the artistic establishment irate at their self-identification as Canada’s national school of painters. Nevertheless, National Gallery of Canada director Eric Brown stood by the landscapes, ensuring their presence at Canadian art shows abroad, despite outrage by members of the Royal Canadian Academy. By this time, Harris had stopped signing or dating his works, so that they would be judged upon their own merit and not a specific period or on his renown as an artist.

Around the same time, he also became a formal member of the Toronto Lodge of the International Theosophical Society, a local organization founded in 1891 by prominent individuals including Dr. Emily Stowe and Albert Smythe, whose son Conn would also be a lifelong member. Drawing on Western occultism, Eastern religions, and Enlightenment science, theosophy is a philosophical system based on a belief in a universal and eternal principle fundamental to all life. Bordering on fetishism at times, theosophy, Harris later wrote, opened up to new ways of thinking about the world beyond the “goose steppers,” who aligned themselves to normative cultural practices. Of course, while theosophists brought radical thinkers such as Emma Goldman to address their group and embraced certain Eastern practices, they also blatantly distanced themselves from immigrants and the racist implications of Canadian policies.

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Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1930.

Its mystical and colonial overtones aside, the Theosophical Society’s Toronto branch shifted the cultural, political, and social landscape. In Harris’ life, this meant a shift from Protestantism to Transcendentalism. In his work, this took the form of paintings of the northern territories as a pure and pristine sources of “spiritual flow,” and an impulse to abstraction. Though they received acclaim, Emily Carr thought that the paintings were dead and lifeless. Harris’s loyalty to the Group of Seven would inevitably come to be at odds with his preference for abstract forms and search for universal truth.

The group (which had since grown to include Torontonian A.J. Casson, Montreal’s Edwin Holgate, and Winnipeg’s L.L. Fitzgerald) disbanded in 1933. A year later, the breaking point came in Harris’s relationship with his fellow artists, as his marriage dissolved. Though described as loyal to his wife of 24 years, Trixie, and affectionate with their three children, Harris had taken to a romantic relationship with Bess Housser, who was herself married to a school friend of Harris. The transition seems to have been complicated, but also amicable and quaint amongst those in the relationships. At the time, Harris argued that his relationship with Bess was a spiritual kinship that would remain celibate, a matter that biographer James King supports. Nevertheless, the act was scandalous in Toronto the Good and the new couple left Toronto, first moving to New Hampshire and then to New Mexico, to an enclave of artists and transcendentalists, freethinkers and yoga enthusiasts. Harris cut one of his last formal ties to Toronto in 1948, when he sold the Studio Building.

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Harris preparing for his retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, 1964.

Lawren Harris spent his final decades in Vancouver. Notwithstanding his efforts for his art to stand on its own merits, he would have two retrospectives in his lifetime, one in 1949 and the other in 1963. While he died in 1970, his artistic influence remains, and has even experienced a renaissance. Bashful Canadian art lovers were pleasantly surprised when Steve Martin announced that he would guest curate an exhibition of Harris’ idealized northern landscapes of the 1920s and early 1930s at the Los Angeles Hammer Museum. Martin describes him as an artist “who is not telling the story of landscape, but has taken it to another level of the metaphysics of landscape.”

lawren harris mountain and glacier

Lawren Harris, Mountain and Glacier

It seems as though Martin’s praise has taken the value of Harris’ work to the next financial level: At the Heffel Fine Art Auction this week, his Mountain and Glacier sold for $3.9 million, more than double its estimate, breaking a record for a single Lawren Harris work.

Further reading: Ross King, Defiant Spirit (2010); Lawren Harris, The Story of the Group of Seven (Toronto: Rous & Mann, 1964); James King, Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2012); Gillian McCann, Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945 (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012)

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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