National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 23, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Nationalist Aspects of Lawren S. Harris's Aesthetics

by Peter Larisey

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 


For Lawren S. Harris, 1908 - the year he turned twenty-three - was a significant one. He was back in Canada 7 after four years, during which time he had studied painting in Germany, and had travelled widely in Europe and in the Middle East. The year was important for at least two other reasons: Harris became a charter member of the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto (this club was the matrix of many artistic endeavours in English Canada, including the Group of Seven); (8) and perhaps even more important for his development as a Canadian nationalist painter, Harris went on his first sketching trip into Canada's North. (9)

This trip was to the Laurentians with a fellow member of the Arts and Letters Club, Fergus Kyle (1876- 1941). His next two trips were likewise with a club member, J. W. Beatty (1869-1941); in the spring of 1909 they went to Haliburton, Ontario, and in the fall of the same year they went to Memphremagog, Quebec. Harris's fourth and fifth sketching trips were with J. E. H. MacDonald (1873-1932), whose sketches Harris had admired in Novembcr 1911, when they were exhibited at the Arts and Letters Club; in the spring of 1912 they went to Mattawa and Temiscaming, both on the northern reaches of the Ottawa River - the boundary between Ontario and Quebec -and in the fall of 1913 they went to the Laurentians. (10)

This early fascination with the North is evident in Harris's first published article which appeared in the first number of The Lamps, the Arts and Letters Club periodical. In this short review of Arthur Hemming's exhibition of 1911, Harris praised the works not just because they were of Canadian subject matter, but also because they showed a knowledge and love of the North. The imagery Harris used to describe this northern experience is very similar to the mystically oriented language of his later articles:

A most pleasing thing about these that the subjects which inspired them are truly of this country, and the knowledge upon which they are based must have required not a/one a keen observation but a number of years of study in the North. The incident of the north-land, the cold crispness of its snows, the suggestion of mystery and done in a perfectly simple and masterly way. (11)

The North would continue to attract Harris until it drew him, in 1930, to within a few hundred miles of the North Pole. No single element in his nationalist aesthetics is more important. In "Revelation of Art in Canada," an article published in 1926, he described Canadians as being "in 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." (12)

But the North meant more for Harris. He described
it as part of Canada's national artistic destiny:

It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America, and we Canadians, being closest to this source seem destined to produce an art somewhat different from our southern fellows, an art more spacious, of a greater living quiet, perhaps of a certain conviction of eternal values. We were not placed between the southern teeming of men and the ample, replenishing North for nothing. (13)

"True Canadians," Harris affirmed in 1928, are "imbued with the North." (14) In the same article, Harris described his progress northward and at the same time, his development as a Canadian painter. His trajectory as a nationalist landscape painter brought him first to paint in the near north, as we can see from the pattern of his early sketching trips. He also painted landscapes, houses, and snow scenes in and around Toronto. Both Harris and his mother had summer homes on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, and some of his sketches were done there. He also sketched in Algonquin Park.

In the spring of 1918, while recovering from an illness, Harris went for the first time to the Algoma region of Ontario, and organized the first of the well known box-car trips for the Group, on the Algoma Central Railway, to take place that fall. For several years the Algoma region was the main sketching grounds for the Group of Seven. During the winter months, Harris painted from the sketches he made there, or painted houses in and around Toronto.

In the fall of 1921, in the company of A. Y. Jackson, Harris pushed further north and west in Ontario to the North Shore of Lake Superior. The near-barren landscape there stimulated Harris, and became the setting for some of his most celebrated canvases. Later, in 1924, he began painting in the Rockies, at first producing works such as Maligne Lake, then later, toward 1929, works like Isolation Peak. In 1930, again with A. Y. Jackson, Harris ventured into the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic, and later painted canvases from the many sketches made on that trip.

Thus the notion "Northward" in Harris's aesthetic had great geographic significance as well as spiritual meaning; when these were combined with his thirst for unceasing artistic and spiritual development, "Northward" came to mean "further north all the time." And so, by 1930, when he had gone as far North as it was possible to go, he was confronted with a question at once geographic, artistic, and spiritual: what was he going to paint next!

That was a question for which Harris had an answer by late 1934. I have so far found no evidence that he had been painting between 1931 and 1934 (15); but he was by no means idle during these years. He became more active than he had previously been in the Theosophical Society at Toronto. He applied his energies to the articulation of his personal philosophical and religious synthesis. In so doing, Harris was able to relate his commitment to art and aesthetics to a range of human concerns wider than the framework offered by Canadian nationalism, (16) although the latter always remained an important value for him.

Responsibilities of the Canadian Artist

The function of art and the role of the artist in society were frequently discussed by Harris. Writing in 1923 he insisted that it: surely the function of art to externalize all that within us lies hidden. For art is the living body of life made majestic only by full expression...a heritage only to be known, understood and possessed by a people when the creative is at work or Commences to work in that people. (17)

Harris saw creativity as the most important quality of a people: "Life is creative and people only live when they create, and...all other activities should be a means to creation." (18) In addition, Harris believed that there was for Canadians a "crying necessity to evoke spiritual well-being from within ourselves" and that this would be accomplished for Canadians by artists, "by the creative spirits among us through the arts." (19) Harris held that if the Canadian artist:

...does not succumb to the stultifying desire for reward, whether it be cash or lame or position, he becomes one with the hidden, forming aspirations of his race and people toward divine clarity and the spirit of life itself. It is just this occurring in a number of individuals that creates an art and a home for the soul of a people. (20)

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