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The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris Curated by Steve Martin at the Hammer Museum

Lawren Harris, Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountain Paintings VII, ca. 1929. Oil on canvas. 51 11⁄16 × 58 1⁄16 in. (131.3 × 147.7 cm). The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris
Curated by Steve Martin
Hammer Museum
October 11, 2015 to January 24, 2016


With a controlled purity of line, symbolic synthesis of nature, modulated palette of cold blues and infusion of icy light, the masterful - and timeless- paintings of Lawren Harris conjure the visual essence of north. These are much more than simply abstracted landscapes. Products of a deliberate and carefully refined vision, these “pictures” as guest curator Steve Martin refers to them, evoke an elusive quality, tapping into the heart of the Canadian identity, in some way representing the internal territory of the Canadian soul.

The paintings are not documentary in approach. Rather, they are extrapolations of settings, reconfigured by Harris’s imagination. The artist immersed himself in real landscapes, which he drew in his sketchbook. Later, he would re-envision what he had seen, creating a cumulative interpretation, infusing emotion on to the canvas, as in, Isolation Peak (1930, oil on canvas, 42 x 50 inches) in which a dramatic foreground depicting an abstracted snowy landscape with blue contour lines on white, leads up to a single mountain pointing to the sky. The title is a made up name, Martin explained at the October press preview. “I believe he was referring to the feeling of isolation.”

There are more mountains in the actual Canadian Rockies landscape from which this painting was derived. Symbolic rather than representative, Harris adapted actual setting as catalyst. As Andrew Hunter, Frederik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), said at the press preview, “These are, in a way, portals to another place.”

Not a retrospective, the exhibit focuses on an important period in the artist’s career, from the early 1920s to mid 30's. The 30 some paintings presented here are derivative of three real places outside Harris’s imagination - Lake Superior, the Canadian Rockies and the Eastern Arctic. The works are also portals to another time. Harris (1885 to 1970) was a founding member of the Group of Seven, a pivotal and groundbreaking collective of Ontario-based landscape painters in the 20s and 30s who championed a distinct Canadian art movement based on contact with nature and the outdoors.

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior, c. 1923. Oil on canvas. 44 x 49 15/16 in. (111.8 x 126.9 cm). 
The Thomson Collection ©Art Gallery of Ontario ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

The paintings epitomize the pristine vastness of the Canadian wilderness – or perhaps, once introduced to the paintings, help shape our romantic notion of it. The nobility of the landscapes and the mesmerizing quality of light filtering through them seem to allude to the fact that Harris was a religious man. In these abstracted iterations of north, Harris magically conquers the limitations of the visual medium. Hinting at other senses in addition to sight, they trigger memories of the crunch of snow beneath our boots, the blast of crisp cold biting our skin, the scent of clean air.

Harris and the Group of Seven were trailblazers of Canadian art history. Their work has pride of place in Canadian art museums, has been commemorated on postage stamps, is both fundamental and iconic in the Canadian cultural canon. As a Canadian expatriate who lived in Ottawa as a child, has visited the National Gallery of Canada innumerable times and attended art school in Toronto, the work of Harris and the Group of Seven are indelibly imprinted in my mind, part of the landscape of my Canadian consciousness. From my Canadian point of view, it is curious, as a result of this exhibition, to see the work of Harris being viewed as revelatory in this new timeframe and context – in Canadian parlance - south of the border.

Lawren Harris, Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper), ca. 1934-40. Oil on canvas . 50 5/16 x 60 5/16 in. (127.8 x 152.6 cm). Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery; Gift of the Mendel family, 1965. ©Family of Lawren S. Harris.

While they were virtual unknowns here, Harris and the Group of Seven were keenly aware of what was happening artistically in the United States. Harris actually lived in New Hampshire and New Mexico from 1934 to 1939. Nevertheless, Canadians won’t be surprised Harris is only now being recognized and celebrated south of the border. And as much as Canada seeks to protect its own cultural heritage and keep it distinct from that of the pervasive American influence, to a great extent, the ultimate validation of Canadian art and culture comes from outside endorsement by our larger and older American compeers.

It’s striking that the last time a Harris painting was shown in Los Angeles – perhaps the only previous time – was in 1926. It’s only by chance that American viewers have the opportunity to see these historically important paintings here now. The genesis of the exhibition was a dinner party at Martin’s home where Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin noticed a Harris painting on the wall. It was her first introduction to the artist. She asked Martin, a collector with deep knowledge of 20th century art, to curate the exhibit.

In his remarks at the press preview, Martin referred to the exhibit as a dream. Co-organized by the Hammer and the AGO, it is also the result of the combined vision of Martin, Hunter and Cynthia Burlingham, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs at the Hammer. After three years of planning and extensive trans Canada travel on a quest for the paintings, Martin pronounced, “The installation looks exactly liked I hoped it would...

“We were trying to place Lawren Harris in a new position, and I think when you see the show, you’ll see that it’s valid. Harris is not only a regional Canadian painter. He’s an international modernist that I believe fits with O’Keefe, Hopper, Hartley etc.”

Martin has done us a favor, Canadians who may not have explored Harris in depth will now re-encounter his work via this survey when it travels to the AGO in Toronto, as well as Americans, who will see it for the first time at the Hammer and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. We’re all enriched through our new or renewed exposure to this important visionary, who merits our continued interest and acclaim. WM


Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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