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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But the "new world on this continent," although it was emerging "from the swaddling clothes of Europe," was having problems; Harris regretted that "so many people in North America" keep themselves attached to European attitudes, and thus they viewed 'the strivings and directions of the new, now adolescent race - their race - with disdain and misgivings." Harris continued, "we of the new race...suffer the dying grasp of a Europe fundamentally alien to US." (46)

Harris saw this struggle with European attitudes as inevitable for the race of North America. But Canada experienced a particular problem which Americans did not have; Canadians who wished to be creative had to contend with the "English attitude in Canada," which Harris described as:

...a struggle of attitudes occurring throughout the country. It is the poorer insistent phases of the old land against the growing spirit of a creative Canada. It is the belittlement of colonialism still fostered among a people no longer a colony. It is the English attitude in Canada sick with its own superiority seeking health where for it there is none....Since our beginnings in Canada, it has been opposed to everything that is spontaneous or free or creative, that is, everything that is in the spirit of the North....All that made this country Canadian had to fight tooth and nail for its life against English superiority and self-sufficiency. (47)

Thus in Harris's view, one of the ways in which Canadians differed from Americans was that Canadians had to combat the English attitude in Canada. A more important difference was the special role Canadians were to play in the formation of the new race of North America: Harris felt that "the very glory of our life" (48) might well be in giving the North its adequate expression.

Harris's attitude toward the "new race" forming on this continent continued with little change into his later writings. (49) This notion of the North American race formed the context within which we can understand that Harris saw Whitman and Lincoln as examples for Canadians to follow. This attitude should also be taken into account when considering Harris's six-year sojourn in the United States, as well as the fact that on at least two occasions in 1939 Harris participated in exhibitions in which he would have been thought of as an American. (50) Harris also felt that New York City had significance for Canadians:

Thus the newer unreminiscient-of-Europe magnificent structures in New York give us a strange feeling of some remote grandeur that is yet very close to our hearts.


Harris's Canadian nationalism was that of a continentalist. He saw a role for Canadians and their art as part of a larger North American racial and cultural unity. Harris's anti-European stance- part of the continentalist tradition - was selective; he never mentioned Germany, some of whose painters had deeply influenced him.

Believing that the Canadian artist and his people and race were, at their best, deeply united, Harris claimed an avant-garde role for the artist in this relationship. In this, he reveals his own roots within the modern European tradition. Like Kandinsky and Mondrian before him, Harris articulated this avant-garde role with a mystical understanding and a spiritual vocabulary drawn from his contacts with Theosophy and with the works of Oriental religious writers.

The ideas, images, ambitions, and feelings - at once nationalist and artistic, religious and social - which Harris had been put ting together in the twenties and early thirties became an aesthetic vantage point. On the one hand it can be looked on as the product of Harris's understanding of his own development as a nationalist landscape painter, moving "from particular expression and outward aspect toward universal expression and the spirit that informs all life." (52) On the other hand, the vantage point supplied him with an aesthetic basis which made possible his decision to paint the abstract works capable of expressing the "ideas insistently forming" which, Harris felt, "could not be expressed in representational terms," (53) and which occupied most of his energies for the next three decades.

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