Examining Canadian Identity up Close: Lawren Harris and the Great White North

Lawren S. Harris, Lake Superior, circa 1923, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 126.9 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is putting its unique stamp on a Lawren S. Harris exhibition that has been touring the United States. Produced in association with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, in its AGO iteration, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris explores the impact of Harris’ work on Canada’s national identity.

The exhibition had its genesis in Los Angeles when the Hammer Museum asked comedian, musician, writer and art collector Steve Martin to curate an art show. Martin’s love of the arts is well known, and Harris is an artist whom Martin deeply admires.

While Harris’s work is little known in the United States, the artist’s stature here in Canada is, of course, iconic. Thus began a collaborative process between Martin, the Hammer Museum and AGO curator Andrew Hunter to produce a major exhibition on Harris. The result is The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, which has already been presented at the Hammer and at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. Its presentation at the AGO is the exhibition’s last stop, and the only opportunity for Canadians to see this acclaimed show.  

Lawren S. Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926, oil on canvas,102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

Curators from both the Hammer Museum and the AGO — working in close consultation with Martin — selected works from major public and private collections across Canada, including the AGO, the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. NGC loans to the exhibition include the celebrated North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), along with North Shore, Baffin Island (1930), Lake Harbour, South Shore, Baffin Island, Morning (1930), High Country, Lake Superior (c. 1925), North Shore, Baffin Island I (c. 1930), and Lake Superior (c. 1928).

“Steve Martin envisioned an exhibition that emphasized Harris’s bold and striking northern landscapes from the 1920s and early 1930s, which he regards as great modern painting,” said Hunter in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Martin believes Harris is on par with artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove, and should be better known in the United States.” 

The title of the show is borrowed from Glenn Gould’s 1967 experimental documentary, The Idea of North, part of a trilogy of “oral tone poems” produced for the CBC. In The Idea of North, Gould interviewed southern Canadians about the North, interspersing their comments with his own musings and musical compositions. “The documentary comes to this notion that North, as most Canadians know it, is largely an idea and construct that comes from southerners,” says Hunter.  

Lawren S. Harris, Red House and Yellow Sleigh, 1919, oil on pulp board, overall: 26.7 x 33.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift from the Friends of Canadian Art Fund, 1938. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

For the AGO presentation, Hunter delved more deeply into that theme. “We wanted to unpack the idea of the Great White North in Harris’s work — examine where it came from, and what its consequences are.” To accomplish that, the AGO roughly doubled the size of the core show presented at the Hammer and the MFA, adding 30 works that Harris produced in the 1910s of The Ward, an impoverished Toronto neighbourhood. Although himself the scion of a wealthy family, Harris often wandered the streets of The Ward, impelled, he once wrote, by an innate “curiosity and wonder.” Harris’ Ward paintings offer an alternate view of his Canada, and may have informed the pared-down landscapes he produced as part of the Group of Seven.

“Harris’s natural landscapes are very much a rejection of the spaces in Toronto that he found problematic,” said Hunter. “He creates these transcendent images of the North, which in his mind reflect a spiritual journey away from the urban. But for many Canadians, they represent national identity.”

Lawren S. Harris, Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, 1923, oil on canvas, 94.1 x 114.1 cm. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Bequest of H.S. Southam, C.M.G., LL.D., 1966. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

The AGO also commissioned four works for the show by contemporary Toronto artists, inviting them to reflect on the exhibition’s subject matter and theme. All produced in 2015–2016, the pieces include a video installation by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier called Ice Forms; a series of three digital enlargements and original drawings by Nina Bunkevac called The Observer: The Ascent, Dundas Subway, Sunny Days; a series of four Cibachromes by Anique Jordan called 94 Chestnut at the Crossroads; and an animated video installation by Tin Can Forest called Isis Unveiled: Lawren Harris’s Theosophical Dream; A Divine Comedy. The works alternately complement the show’s subject matter, challenge its representations of Canada and Toronto, and enrich the narrative by complicating the core issues of Canada, the North, and modern Toronto, says Hunter.

Lawren S. Harris, Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper), circa 1934–1940, oil on canvas,127.8 x 152.6 cm. Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery, Gift of the Mendel Family, 1965. © 2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris

“It’s essential to study Harris from a contemporary perspective as we consider his relevance today,” notes Hunter, who suggests that curators have an obligation to think both creatively and critically about the impact and legacy of artists like Harris. “Harris’ generation of artists defined for many people what Canada is. Their ideas were clear and succinct, but exclusive of many other narratives.”

“This exhibition asks us to pause and think about where we’ve gone and where we are today,” he adds. “I think people will come away feeling that they didn’t travel back in time, but that they visited an exhibition that is relevant to the world we live in.”

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until September 18, 2016. 

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