When I was growing up, my Dad told me stories about walking with his friend and mentor in the forests near Vancouver. It was the 1960s and Lawren Harris (1885–1970) was deep into his last period of pure abstraction, inspired by theosophy and transcendentalism. Germs of remembrance and philosophy have since filtered through Dad’s studio and eventually onto my own easel as assumed knowledge. It seems there was never a time I didn’t believe that paintings come out of themselves — serving as springboards for the next and the next — gaining power as they appear. Paintings evolve and exist as monuments to the spirit, drawing from the essence of their original source. Long experienced and filed in our imagination, we pull as needed a vocabulary for the heart.
Last Sunday, I went to church — The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a breezy aerie yoked with square galleries. Actor, writer, musician and art collector Steve Martin has gathered thirty or so of Harris’ landscapes from the 1920s and ’30s for an exhibition called The Idea of North — named after the 1967 CBC radio documentary by pianist Glenn Gould. Lawren Harris and I are alone together. The paintings capture the moment before he leapt into the freefall of abstraction. They cling to the stark, shadowed stumps and magic pools of Lake Superior or cut rhythms into the arctic ice. The realities of landscape are transcended into a kind of cosmic hymn to nature.
Like a method actor, Harris immersed himself in his places of reference: the Arctic, the Rockies, the lakes of Northern Ontario. By first seeking to understand the real landscape, he allowed time and imagination to overtake second and third generation paintings, knocking at the door of abstraction while gifting nature’s bigger message. “It was an ever clearer and deeply moving experience of oneness with the spirit of the whole land,” he wrote. “It was this spirit which dictated, guided and instructed us how the land should be painted.”
PS: “The thought of today cannot be expressed in the language of yesterday.” (Lawren Harris)
“The power of these great Canadian icons, really, is they have the ability to go beyond Canada and inspire people from many walks of life and geographic locations.” (Steve Martin)
Esoterica: “A long time ago I had a mentor by the name of Lawren Harris. Apart from the tips that this well-known painter freely gave me, he had the ability to talk elegantly about art as if it were bread. He believed that art was life-sustaining stuff, and worth the effort. He had a wise sense of humour and a diplomatic delivery. One time he looked at my work and said that I had ‘a somewhat endearing tendency to show vestigial signs of mental laziness.’ Harris was a Theosophist, and while I didn’t buy the seances, I did buy his sense of spirituality. I seldom pick up my brush without being thankful for his spirit. While he is long gone, in a wonderful way we laugh together now.” (Robert Genn)
“And light has no weight, / Yet one is lifted on its flood, / Swept high, / Running up white-golden light-shafts, / As if one were as weightless as light itself – / All gold and white and light.” (Lawren Harris)