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

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The Canadian Artist's People and Race

Harris used the collective noun "people" to designate Canadians, and the noun "race" to designate the inhabitants of the North American continent. And, as we have already seen, Harris felt that the Canadian artist was aware of the aspirations "of his race and people."(31) As late as 1948, Harris claimed that the Group of Seven had had a "brooding sense of Mother Nature fostering a new race and a new age." (32) In the following paragraph, taken from his article "Revelation of Art in Canada" written in 1926, Harris described the particular role that Canada was to play in the forming of the new race:

Well Canada are in different circumstances that the people ill the United States. Our population is sparse, the psychic atmosphere comparatively clean, whereas the States fill up and the masses crowd a heavy psychic blanket over nearly all the land....It seems that the top of this 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 more certain conviction of eternal values. We were not placed between the southern teeming of men and the ample replenishing North for nothing. (33)

Harris urged Canadians to "seek first the growing immense zest of this country and continent" because we would then "find our own soul and our own unique gift for men." (34)

Most of the positive things Harris had to say about North America concerned the North and the Canadian role in the new race. He insisted that:

We live on the fringe of the great North across the whole continent and its spiritual flow, its clarity, its replenishing power passes through us to the teeming people south of us. It may be that the very glory of our life is in giving expression to this that comes to us pure in ideas, thoughts, character and attitude, through deeds and the arts for the larger part of the forming race to the south as well as to ourselves. (35)

And Harris suggested that this process might in part have been taking place, for he thought that the movement of educated Canadians across the American border looking for employment could be "one of the means of the infiltration of a certain clarity and unpretentious devotion, certain intangible elements in the quiet side of the Canadian character that is born of the spirit of the North and reflects it." (36)

Harris was emphatically optimistic about the effects the North could have:

Two months in our North country of direct experience in creative living and art will bring about a very marked change in the attitude of any creative individual. It will bring him all inner released freedom to adventure on his own that is well nigh impossible amid the insistencies and superficialities of Europe. (37)

However, the main method Harris used to describe the new race he saw emerging on this continent was to contrast it with his view of European culture. The earliest written expression of this anti-European attitude is found in the letter Harris wrote to the editor of the Toronto Globe in 1914. In this aggressive letter, Harris warned the Federal Art Commission that Canadian art was bound for oblivion "unless it cuts itself loose from Barbizon and Holland and the Royal Academy of England and becomes something more than a mere echo of the art of other countries." (38) Time and again in his writings, Harris stressed this contrast. Sometimes he referred to Canada alone, sometimes to "the new race" or to the continent of North America.

The new race Harris saw emerging on this continent would be:

...the race of the new dispensation which will develop and embody the new attitude. It grows now largely within the swaddling clothes of European culture and tradition but its ideals are not the same. Its attitude is not the same. Its direction is not the same as both Lincoln and Whitman knew. (39) 

Canada was unlike "Europe and the old country" because "This land is different in its air, moods and spirit. It evokes a response that throws aside all pre-conceived ideas and rule-of-thumb reactions." (40)

Because of the newness of the Canadian environment and the lack of a "tradition and background," Canadian artists have begin with "adventures in imaginative and intuitive living" because "The land is mostly virgin, fresh and full-replenishing." (41) Earlier, in 1923, Harris felt that Canadians were only beginning to find themselves, and he insisted that one cannot import a background; Canadians must make their own:

We in Canada are only beginning to find ourselves. People in other lands come to us already sustained by rich, stable backgrounds, thinking that these can also sustain us. It is not so. We are about the business of becoming a nation and must ourselves create our own background...a complete exposure of every phase of our existence, the building of the unique structure utilizing all our reactions to our environment. (42)

But Harris felt that Canada, whose "personality...commences to form and grow" had to meet "the insistent, distracting, superficial emanations from older growths, from Europe particularly." (43)

Less than a year later, in May 1927, Harris reviewed - defended, really - the Société Anonyme exhibition held at The Art Gallery of Toronto. He tried to calm the "many people deeply interested in Canadian art" who were upset by the directions shown in the exhibition - which included works by Kandinsky, Picabia, Max Ernst, Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Mondrian, Lissitzky, and others. Harris felt that it was unlikely that the exhibition would distract "Canadian artists from their path." Although he had serious praise for the exhibition, he insisted that "it would be almost impossible now for any real Canadian artist to imitate any European artist." His conviction was that "our way is not that of Europe and when we evolve abstractions, the approach, direction and spirit will be somewhat different." (44)

The European outlook had been altered in North America, Harris felt, because of "pioneering struggles in a virgin country under great skies." He continued, contrasting the melancholy of Europe to the "zest of this country and continent":

Our atmosphere is more stimulating to the boldness necessary to question established ways, all institutions and attitudes of the past and other peoples. We are somewhat free from the weariness and consequent doubts and melancholy of Europe and if we seek first the growing immense zest of this country and continent we will find our soul and our own unique gift for men. (45)

Next Page | "new world on this continent"

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