Lawren P. Harris

"When I was finally made a war artist, we had to go right back to Realism with a vengeance. And the more I did, the more I realized that this wasn't the way I wanted to work. I found it terribly confining."
(Lawren P. Harris, 1973)

Lawren P. Harris was a painter, watercolourist, draughtsman, printmaker, muralist, and art educator. He was known for the highly precise style and disciplined execution of his war art, portraits and abstractions. As an art educator and administrator at Mount Allison University, Harris made a considerable contribution to the arts in the Atlantic provinces.

Harris's earliest influence was his father, Lawren S. Harris of the Group of Seven. He studied from 1931 to 1933 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, under Rodney J. Burn and Robin Guthrie, and at Central Technical School, Toronto, under Robert Ross. For three years, he taught evening classes at Northern Vocational School, Toronto, before spending a year as art master at Trinity College School, Port Hope. With the outbreak of World War II, Harris joined the war effort, first serving in a tank regiment, and then as an official war artist. In this capacity, he worked for some time alongside Charles Comfort in Italy.

On a 1946 visit to New York's Guggenheim Museum, Harris was inspired by the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rudolf Bauer and Hilla von Rebay. That same year, he was appointed Director of the School of Fine and Applied Arts at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, where he was soon joined on the teaching faculty by Alex Colville. Harris remained at Mount Allison until 1975 as a professor and administrator, and taught summer programs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and Banff School of Fine Arts.

In his early years, Harris focused on figure painting, and then moved to landscapes, where his work demonstrates the influence of Charles Sheeler and Georgia O'Keeffe. He painted in a highly precise style and with increasingly simplified, abstracted forms, as evident in Grain Fields (1938). Returning to figurative work as a war artist, he created careful, realistic watercolour scenes that he later worked up in oil. With their simplified forms and smooth brushwork, these works are haunting, almost surrealistic images of deadly, mechanized warfare. Towards the end of the war, Harris moved to semi-abstract drawings of bombed-out buildings. His post-war paintings, such as Monster Forms (1953), show an evolution towards complete abstraction, with strongly linear, geometric forms. During this period, Harris's portrait work always remained highly realistic, as demonstrated in H.O. McCurry (1957).

Lawren P. Harris held many solo exhibitions at Canadian universities and participated in numerous group shows, including a two-man show with Jack Humphrey at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1955). Among his many affiliations, he was a member of the Canadian Group of Painters, Ontario Society of Artists, Royal Canadian Academy, and Maritime Art Association. Harris held honorary doctorates from Dalhousie University (1971) and Mount Allison University (1976). His work is held in numerous public institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada, Canadian War Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario and Beaverbrook Art Gallery.