The Idea of North and Lawren Harris

He was born into a family of industrialists, but he became renowned for art, landscapes, and capturing an idea of ‘The North.’

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Lawren Harris; photo from the Archives of Ontario

Lawren Harris was born in 1885 in Brantford, Ontario; he is of the same Harris Family of Massey-Harris (later Massey Ferguson), which at one time was the largest agricultural equipment maker in the British Empire. Harris received a good education, studying at the University of Toronto, and later in Berlin. All this time, he developed an interest in art. In the early 1910s, he befriended JEH MacDonald and Tom Thomson; in less than a decade, Harris and MacDonald would be two members of the noted Group of Seven. That Thomson was a member of the Group of Seven is a common misconception as Thomson died in 1917 before the official formation. His influence upon those painters cannot be understated, as he was passionate about the ‘great outdoors’ and about capturing the Canadian landscape on canvas. After their first show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1920, the Group of Seven began identifying themselves as being in the ‘landscape school of art.’

Throughout the 1920s, Harris and MacDonald, along with Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, F.H. Varley, and Arthur Lismer (and later A.J. Casson and Edwin Holgate) would commit the Canadian landscape to canvas like no other artists previously. Pieces created by these artists are held at major art galleries throughout the country and abroad, with major collections housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and the McMichael Art Gallery in Kleinburg, ON.

In the early 1930s, the group felt it was no longer necessary to exhibit as a formal group, and the individual artists continued with their work to great success.  Harris moved to New Hampshire and later New Mexico before moving to Vancouver, BC in 1940, where he would remain until his death in 1970; he is buried on the grounds of the McMichael Art Gallery.

As long as I have known about art and was old enough to recognize and appreciate major works, I have known about the Group of Seven. The mystery of Tom Thomson’s death fascinated me with every trip to Algonquin; their artwork is a favourite when seen in galleries; their pieces and themes were explored as I took my Canadian Studies degree. The artwork by Lawren Harris has always stood out to me, the stark colours he uses, the forms, the simplicity yet complexities (yes, I know that is very contradictory!) in his landscapes. When I learned of a touring exhibition featuring Harris’s artwork, I could hardly wait for it to make its way to Toronto; to learn that the exhibition was curated by Steve Martin, yes the banjo playing comedian Steve Martin, it added to the excitement for the show.

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In mid-July, on one of the hottest days thus far of the summer, I made my way to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit is different from what toured in the US, expanded to include a Toronto theme, exploring an area called ‘The Ward,’ where Harris spend his formative years.  The Ward, formally the St. John’s Ward, is a neighbourhood bound by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue; today, the Eaton Centre, Toronto City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square and other prominent shops and buildings are found here, but in the 1910s when Harris called it home, it was an impoverished area where recent immigrants would commonly settle.  Divided into three themes, the first and third explored the Ward, first looking at its history, utilizing Harris’ works contrasting with photography from the time, and the third featured contemporary artists examining the changes to the Ward both geographically and socially.  The second theme explored the ‘Idea of North’ and Harris’ iconic works which capture the Canadian landscape.

It is difficult to imagine the centre of Toronto from another time, as the Eaton Centre and City Hall are so dominant in that space, but Harris’ depictions from the Ward helped bring this time and place to life, using bright colours, or dull when appropriate, and the use of figures help put the viewer in the scene.

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I was especially struck by the following image, which again was new to me before this exhibit. Haven’t we all been this poor soul at one time or another?

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Lawren Harris: Approaching Storm, 1911; on loan from a private collection

As I moved through the exhibition, it dawned on me why I’m so drawn to Harris and his art: not only are the forms, shapes, and landscapes he captures, but I am so very drawn to the colours he uses. Blues, greys, teals, purples, whites. His striking colour use is very impactful. The knitter in me kept walking around the space just imagining skeins of yarn dyed with the colours of  Lake and Mountains.

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Lawren Harris: Lake and Mountains, 1928; Art Gallery of Ontario Collection

My iPhone photographs do not do justice to seeing the paintings in person. If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, or are planning a visit before September 18, make the Art Gallery of Ontario and The Idea of North a must-visit.

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2 thoughts on “The Idea of North and Lawren Harris”

  1. Ahhh, I want to go so badly. It must have been neat to see how Harris’s style changed over time while going through the exhibition. Thank you for sharing your picture of Approaching Storm. I’ve never seen that one before!

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    1. Thanks! The pictures don’t compare to seeing them in person! If you can get to the AGO, I’d highly recommend it! If you miss The Idea of North, their permanent Canadian gallery has a great selection of Harris’ work exhibited.

      Liked by 1 person

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