Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2017
Cynthia Burlingham, Andrew Hunter, Steve Martin, and Karen E. Quinn The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2015. 160 pp.; 94 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9783791354705)
Exhibition schedule: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, October 11, 2015–January 24, 2016; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 12–June 12, 2016; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, July 1–September 18, 2016

Lawren Harris is among the most famous Canadian painters. The general public in Canada know him as one of the members of the Group of Seven, artists who exhibited together in the 1920s, popularizing a new, colorful, modernist style of painting that celebrated the Canadian landscape. But Harris’s celebrity status stops at the border. The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, published in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, attempts to bring this star of Canadian art to the attention of a U.S. audience. While the exhibition was shown first at the Hammer, then went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and concluded at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the beautifully produced catalogue, which provides an in-depth examination of one brief period in the artist’s career, is clearly written with Americans in mind. The maestro of this orchestrated effort is comedian, writer, and actor Steve Martin, here acting as curator, who has been collecting Harris’s work for many years. Martin’s fame is bringing new fame to Harris.

The small slice of Harris’s long career that is the subject of the exhibition and catalogue is the period from 1922 to 1930 when he was painting the Canadian Rockies and the far north. His stark, simplified compositions are striking: flat color depicting eye-popping snowy peaks and icebergs. Critics have previously written about their similarity to works by U.S. artist Rockwell Kent or artists in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, but Martin, writing from an admittedly personal perspective as a collector, sees parallels between Harris and his U.S. contemporary Edward Hopper in the isolation that both artists convey in their paintings.

There are a couple of issues here. It might have been a good idea to put dates in the title, especially since this is a book for readers who may just be discovering Harris; these paintings are from only one phase in his long career, and the catalogue does not tell much about his art before and after this time period. One might mistakenly conclude that this group of paintings is representative of his whole career or, perhaps worse, that everything else he painted is inferior. In actuality, Harris’s painting style and choice of subject matter evolved significantly: from cityscapes, to forest views, to these pictures of the Rockies and the far north. After 1934, he became an abstract painter. What may appear at first to be a giant leap from the northern landscapes to the flat planes of color in the geometric abstractions that follow was really more of a small step when viewed from the perspective of Harris’s long, and constantly evolving, career.

As for the Hopper comparison, the book does not provide any Hopper paintings to enable the reader to consider this idea. Martin sees the isolation in Hopper’s paintings as psychological and, in Harris, as physical. But in Harris, is it really isolation? The paintings have a sublime quality, possibly growing out of Harris’s exposure to German Romantic painting as a student in Berlin. Traveling north and west in his own country to paint these scenes, Harris, like the nineteenth-century artist-explorers of the American West, captured views of the landscape that can be read as a type of patriotic pride. He seems to be saying “these are ours” in the way that U.S. artists Albert Bierstadt did in the Yosemite paintings or Thomas Moran did in his Grand Canyon pictures.

Another issue for the novice just getting to know Harris is that Martin says Harris “distributed his paintings” (18) to Canadian institutions, a statement that makes it sound as though there was no market for Harris paintings and that they ended up in museums only as gifts from the artist. While it is true that Harris gave some of his paintings away, particularly to the National Gallery of Canada, the vast majority were sold. They were and are popular. (Only one painting listed in the exhibition checklist was a gift from the artist to an institution.) He and his fellow artists in the Group of Seven worked hard to make critics, curators, and collectors see their work as emblematic of Canada and therefore worth showing and collecting.

Andrew Hunter’s contribution to the book, like Martin’s essay, is written in a very personal style. An experienced curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he writes about his own trip to the north and how it affected his understanding of Harris’s paintings. Having curated a Harris survey exhibition at the Americas Society in New York in 2000 entitled Lawren Stewart Harris: A Painter’s Progress, Hunter already knew the works well. He notes perceptively for the reader unfamiliar with Canadian art that Harris’s northern landscapes are never seen just as paintings, but are forever caught up in questions of a “national narrative” (54) about Canada, because of what they portray and, as well, because of Harris’s reputation as a major artist and an advocate for Canadian art. Hunter asserts that Harris deserves to be considered an important artist, and he imagines the artist himself saying: “I want to be known as an artist who happens to be Canadian” (56). It is true that Harris’s writings and lectures—which are not in this book—make it clear that he saw no reason that any Canadian artist should be restricted to painting the landscape. Making the argument convincingly using only paintings in which the subject matter is closely tied to a mythic idea of the Canadian landscape “that Canada has done a very good job of exporting” (56) is, however, next to impossible. It feels as if the myth is being reinforced.

Cynthia Burlingham, from the Hammer Museum, and Karen Quinn, formerly of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and now at the New York State Museum, contribute solid, more traditional art-historical examinations of Harris’s use of drawings and the history of exhibitions of his work in the United States, and, in particular, in Boston. Both add to the overall understanding of Harris, especially for readers who were previously unfamiliar with him. Quinn includes illustrations of two earlier Harris cityscapes, one Ontario landscape, and an abstract painting, but these few images do not provide enough information for the reader to get any sense of the strengths or weaknesses of the various phases in Harris’s career. Hunter, who knows the artist’s oeuvre, maintains that Harris’s abstract paintings lack the “intensity and conviction” (53) of his northern landscapes. We seem to be expected to take Hunter’s conclusion on faith that it is all downhill after 1934.

Even though the hyper-focus on one period in Harris’s oeuvre limits what one learns about his overall achievement, this book is a worthy addition to the literature on him—a literature that is vast in Canada, but, save for Hunter’s Americas Society exhibition catalogue (Andrew Hunter and Ian M. Thom, Lawren Stewart Harris: A Painter’s Progress, New York: Americas Society, 2000), almost nonexistent in the United States. The lavish color illustrations in The Idea of North show not only whole paintings, but also lots of details that demonstrate the artist’s use of color and design. Concerning the idea that a collector and celebrity is the curator, I think we cannot be dismissive of this effort. While a purist might complain that Martin, who did not lend to the exhibition, will end up with a Harris collection that has increased in value, we need to keep in mind that the art market and exhibitions are always bound up together. Most private collectors who lend to exhibitions or allow their whole collection to be the subject of a show will usually see a bump in the value of the works. If Martin can bring Harris, a Canadian artist and national icon, to the attention of U.S. audiences, so much the better.

Gwendolyn Owens
Director, Visual Arts Collection, McGill University