How quickly can you name five Canadian artists? If you had some difficulty, don’t despair. Meet Lawren Harris. Born in 1885 in Brantford, Ontario, the sort of place found in short stories by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Alice Munro, this preeminent Canadian artist was a founding member of the modern-minded Group of Seven in 1920 and an active member until it disbanded in the early 1930s. Harris is now the subject of a compact, focused survey, “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris,” organized by the multi-talented Steve Martin, a Harris aficionado, that is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Thirty paintings, resulting from multiple trips Harris made to Lake Superior, the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and the Northwest Passage region of the Arctic Ocean, are on view in the exhibition and date from between 1922 and 1930. Easel-sized, they feature stylized mountains, lots of snow, reflective lakes and rivers, and expansive skies with dramatic clouds that give William Blake a run for his money.
The paintings at the MFA Boston belong to a continuum of impressive vistas stretching from Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 The Icebergs to Torben Giehler’s more recent, colorful, and massive mountains.
The desolate, inhospitable nature of Harris’s locales is underscored by the absence of people. Yet there’s also an otherworldly character to these distant sites that’s enhanced by the artist’s unusual palette—blends of ivory, chilly blues, and a range of browns and grays—as well as the way landmasses, bare trees, icebergs, and other geological formations are backlit or bathed in a celestial glow. Harris’s vision, film buffs will realize, corresponds to the lost kingdoms depicted in the movies Lost Horizon and She from the mid-1930s.
Trained in Berlin, where this scion of a wealthy family studied art for three years at the beginning of the 20th century, Harris arrived at his final compositions of Northern climes after working his way through a number of different stages. During his travels, he took black-and-white photographs that became tiny, two-by-four-inch prints. Many times, he also made pencil drawings of the places he visited from different vantage points, and he peppered these eight-by-ten-inch preparatory works on paper, which he referred to as notes, with comments about color, light, and shadow. On small, mostly twelve-by-fifteen-inch beaverboard panels, Harris additionally painted oil sketches. Several of these are included in “The Idea of North” and they steal the show. With its semi-abstract shapes and compelling blues and greens, Mount Robson from the Northeast (1929), one of these gems, is particularly haunting. (It’s in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which co-organized the show with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; the exhibition opens at the AGO on July 1.)
By the time Harris finished painting the final versions of his chilly scenes, they often were as much fiction as fact. According to a wall text at the MFA, “He invented peaks, rearranged mountains, and morphed rivers into lakes.” Both the small and larger states of Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains (1930) belong among the faux ringers. Nevertheless, they are so convincing that, if you were to walk into these panoramas, you would want to be wearing a heavy overcoat and dark sunglasses.
Harris’s stylizations and palette are unlike any found in the history of art of the United States. Yet he communicates with a period style that would allow many people to guess these frigid views were painted around the time Arthur Dove, Oscar Bluemner, and Georgia O’Keeffe were active during the 1920s and ’30s. In a companion show, the MFA has filled an accompanying gallery with American paintings and photographs from its own rich collection. The work closest to Harris’s oeuvre in terms of both imagery and spirit is Edward Weston’s 1937 print Lake Van Norden.
More than 40 years ago, Hunter professor Eugene C. Goossen told me that if you organize an exhibition with just a few terrific paintings, everyone will assume there are many more that were not put on view. That’s true of “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris.” And so I wish the hardcover book that serves as the exhibition’s catalogue had discussed Harris’s long career in greater detail. I would have liked to have seen more examples of the genre scenes and landscapes he executed in Toronto after he returned at the age of 23 from Europe and a side trip to Damascus and Cairo. Why couldn’t some pages have been set aside to reproduce in sequence a photograph or two, a pencil sketch, a beaverboard study, and a completed painting? And what about the rest of Harris’s career when, as a committed abstractionist, he moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College, in 1934; to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1938; and back to Canada, albeit Vancouver, in 1940, where he died at the age of 84, in 1970?
Until a fuller, more detailed account of his life and career is more readily available, “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” serves as a wonderful introduction to an artist who deserves to be better known outside of Canada.