Bold statements in colour: the cityscapes of Lawren Harris

Lawren S. Harris, Billboard (Jazz), 1921, oil on canvas, 107.2 x 127.5 cm. Gift of Imperial Oil Limited, Calgary, 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Family of Lawren S. Harris Photo: NGC


The first paintings Lawren Harris exhibited in Toronto in 1911 included urban scenes of streets and houses in The Ward, the largely immigrant area west of Toronto’s City Hall. Best known for his landscapes of Ontario’s near north, the Rocky Mountains and Arctic and later abstractions, Harris’ urban scenes played a key role in his exploration of the role of art in the transformations of Canadian society. Yet not all his paintings were well received by the critics.

“Unusual Art Cult Breaks Loose Again” – so headed Augustus Bridle’s review in the Toronto Daily Star of the 1921 Group of Seven exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto. In a collection of 48 canvases by the various artists, all the critics jumped on Harris’ new “shack” paintings – houses in the poorer sections or in the unserviced and uninsurable outskirts of the city, a subject he had been treating for almost a decade. The painting Jazz, later retitled Billboard, especially attracted attention. “What he calls a shack is itself a broad set of crude color splashes capable of expressing a certain emotion peculiar to poverty…. There is a hoarding purposely chosen because it is bizarre in color and size, with a couple of pigmy billposters and a background of shacks,” wrote Bridle. Fred Jacob echoed in The Mail and Empire, “A little of everything has been done by Lawren Harris. He is never better than in those combinations of realism and exaggeration by which he interprets Canadian city life. … The one exception is ‘Jazz,’ for which the painter has selected a title that criticizes it.”

The title Jazz was indeed provocative, associated as it was with modern, urban life, and, in puritanical Toronto, a decadent or immoral lifestyle. Yet the syncopated rhythms of jazz effectively evoked the painting’s aggressive brushwork and fractured texts. While the workers occupy the foreground and a row of stuccoed frame houses recedes into the background, it is the almost abstract billboard of brightly coloured, torn posters that is the principal subject of the painting. In the upper right the swiftly moving clouds extend the rhythms above and beyond the shacks.

Lawren S. Harris, January Thaw, Edge of Town, 1921, oil on canvas, 107 x 127.2 cm. Gift of the artist, Vancouver, 1960. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Family of Lawren S. Harris Photo: NGC

In the same Group show in May 1921 Harris exhibited a painting titled The Fringe of the City, dated 1921 and now titled January Thaw, Edge of Town. Jacob saw it as a social tract in paint. “One of the most striking pictures in the gallery is ‘The Fringe of the City,’ by Lawren Harris. Approach any of the shacktowns of Toronto from behind on a warm March day, and you will get something of the impression that Mr. Harris has conveyed in this painting. The dirty snow, the water-soaked earth, that can absorb no more moisture, and the mean houses, leering in their drabness at the man who said, 'be it ever so humble, there is no place like home' – all of these are faithfully indicated in the picture. One might almost say that Mr. Harris has reached the high water mark in realism in the painting of a mud puddle. The picture is bold, and it is true, but it fills you with horror at the thought of the way in which some humans live.” M.O. Hammond of The Globe agreed. “In one [painting] depicting the loosening grip of winter, he has caught the barren ugliness that man has created with bricks and lumber by a waterside and holds it up to scorn.” And the author of a satirical article in the Sunday Star concurred, “… these new pictures which he had painted made you think that the houses north of Danforth would disappear in the spring mud before the pavement reached them. They missed optimism altogether…. we decided to disagree with Mr. Harris about Toronto.”

Lawren S. Harris, Black Court, Halifax, 1921, oil on canvas, 97.1 x 112 cm. Gift of the artist, Vancouver, 1960. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Family of Lawren S. Harris Photo: NGC

That same spring Harris travelled to Nova Scotia where he painted two canvases of tenement housing just south of Halifax’s dockyards. Traces of snow in the unpaved courtyard identify the season of Black Court, Halifax, painted in the fall of 1921. The dynamically moving clouds recall the brushwork of Jazz but the dominant green-browns and overcast sky create a claustrophobic atmosphere of poverty. “Black Court is despondent with only a note of humanity in order to show that nobody should live in such a place at all,” wrote Bridle.

In 1922 Harris published his only book of poetry titled Contrasts: A Book of Verse. The poem “A Note of Colour” effectively evoked the contrasts he found in the contemporary world:

“In a part of the city that is ever shrouded in sooty smoke, and amid huge, hard buildings, hides a gloomy house of broken grey rough-cast, like a sickly sin in a callous soul.
Streams of wires run by it wailing in the murky wind.
Two half dead chestnut trees, black and broken, stand wearily before it, subdued by a bare rigid telephone pole.
The windows are bleary with grime, and bulging, filthy rags plug the broken panes.
Torn blinds of cold judas green chill whatever light sifts through the smoky air.
Dirty shutters sag this way and that like dancers suddenly stopped in an aimless movement.
But the street door smiles, and even laughs, when the hazy sunlight falls on it –
Someone had painted it a bright gay red.”

Unlike January Thaw, Edge of Town and Black Court, Halifax, Billboard (Jazz) evokes that bright red door, an exhilarating display of energy, colour and light in the midst of Toronto’s shack town.


Billboard (Jazz), January Thaw, Edge of Town and Elevator Court, Halifax are on view in Gallery A109 of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.


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