Your Collection at the NGC: Lawren S. Harris

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

Before he conceived of his iconic mountain forms, and before he ventured into abstract compositions, Lawren S. Harris (1885–1970) was inspired by the urban environment of Toronto. Indeed, Harris routinely painted urban scenes from the early 1910s and into the early 1920s. These were uncommon in Canadian art at the time for their progressive depiction of working-class dwellings and their residents. The National Gallery of Canada's new acquisition Billboard (Jazz) is an exceptional example from this seminal period in the artist’s career.

Lawren S. Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario on October 23, 1885, and moved to Toronto with his family at a young age. He remained a Toronto resident until 1934, although in the intervening years he frequently left the city for sketching trips across Canada. These were undertaken in the company of fellow Canadian artists, including Tom Thomson (1877–1917), J.E.H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974). When the nationalism that dominated landscape painting in Ontario culminated in the formation of the Group of Seven in 1920, Harris was successfully working in a number of genres, including urban scenes that pre-date Billboard (Jazz).

At the first exhibition of the Group in May of that year, Harris exhibited these urban canvases, as well as portraits, landscapes, and sketches. His Shacks, for example — part of the NGC national collection — was exhibited in 1920. Critics and the public were perplexed by the vivid colours and uniquely Canadian subjects presented by the Group at their inaugural presentation, causing some to wonder “Are these new-Canadian painters crazy?”

Lawren S. Harris, Billboard (Jazz) [detail], 1921, oil on canvas, 107.2 x 127.5 cm. NGC. Gift of Imperial Oil Limited, Calgary, 2016. © Family of Lawren S. Harris

The public was similarly mystified by the second Group of Seven exhibition in 1921, at which Billboard (Jazz), recently completed by Harris, was introduced. An anonymous review of the exhibition in the Mail & Empire was not complimentary: “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.’” Most reviews of the exhibition as a whole echoed these sentiments. Billboard (Jazz), priced at $700, did not sell, and in fact, it remained in the possession of the artist for the rest of his life.

Despite the unflattering critical reception that Billboard (Jazz) received at its first (and only) exhibition during Harris’ lifetime, today the work endures as one of his most exceptional urban scenes. The brilliantly coloured and decoratively patterned billboard, almost abstract in its appearance, is a testament to the avant-garde approach presented by the Group of Seven and some of their contemporaries in the early 1920s.

While typically we see this style in relation to the Group’s approach to the Canadian landscape, Billboard (Jazz) offers an opportunity to witness how the stylistic trends of modern Canadian art permeated urban scenes of the period. The walls of the houses at the right of the canvas, for instance, feature the effusive brushstrokes that also form the accumulation of paint and posters on the eponymous billboard. The angular and expansive clouds stretched across the blue sky at the upper right, and the field of brown in the foreground, are similarly composed of thick impasto. Harris’ deft handling of the paint on the canvas surface creates a sense of immediacy, and reinforces the fleeting nature of the advertisements that plaster the billboard.

Lawren S. Harris, Billboard (Jazz) [detail], 1921, oil on canvas, 107.2 x 127.5 cm. NGC. Gift of Imperial Oil Limited, Calgary, 2016. © Family of Lawren S. Harris

Harris continued to paint urban scenes after he completed Billboard (Jazz), although their content changed from the effusive and jubilant dynamism of the former into more socially conscious paintings such as Black Court, Halifax, also in the national collection. Despite this transition, Harris’ strong affinity for such subject matter is evidenced in the number of urban scenes he exhibited between March 1919 and August 1921, during which he entered thirty-seven urban paintings into thirteen exhibitions. By way of comparison, he entered only twenty landscapes, four portraits, and one decorative snow scene — for a total of twenty-five paintings — to the same exhibitions.

After 1921, Harris increasingly shifted his focus from urban scenes to depopulated landscapes. The change in his choice of subject is discernable from the types of paintings he chose to display at Group of Seven exhibitions in the 1920s and into the early 1930s. As the years progressed, Harris’ increasing interest in mysticism and Theosophy began to manifest in his practice. In the period that followed his departure from Toronto, Harris’ paintings became increasingly abstract, building upon the conceptual ideas presented in earlier works such as Billboard (Jazz).

Billboard (Jazz) will be on view as of June 15, 2017, as part of the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. For more information, please click here.

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