Although he is considered to be one of the major trailblazers of Canadian modernism in the twentieth century, Lawren Harris is virtually unknown outside of Canada. Renowned for his modern, sublimely distinct re-imaginings of the northern Canadian landscape, Harris’ work is being given unprecedented treatment in his first-ever major solo exhibition in the United States.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is a splendid, unexpected delight. Now showing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through June 12, The Idea of North is a collaboration between the MFA, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. This has also become a passion project for actor Steve Martin, who is acting as guest curator for the exhibition and owns two Harris paintings himself.
The exhibition is divided into three general sections: Lake Superior, the Arctic, and the Rocky Mountains. What is immediately clear is the spirituality that Harris—who died in 1970—has infused into his work. “The power of beauty at work in man, as the artist has always known,” wrote Harris, “is severe and exacting, and once invoked, will never leave him alone until he brings his work and life in some semblance of harmony and spirit.”
According to Taylor L. Poulin, curatorial research associate, Art of the Americas for the MFA, Harris’ deeply thought paintings are richly rooted in the myth of the Canadian landscape. “He really wanted people to understand the spiritual connection to the land,” said Poulin. “He loved to discuss his art, but he was very introspective.”
The marriage of spirituality and the natural majesty of the landscape is perhaps most evident—unforgettably so—in Lake Superior (c. 1923). Rays of light shine down from the rolling, turbulent gray clouds onto the crisp, almost glowing water below. It is simultaneously light and dark, hopeful and lonely. Light beams feature prominently in this section’s other highlight, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), where the sun blazes down from a half-cloudless sky onto a weathered, determined-looking tree stump. Harris’ paintings offer a fanciful and modern art deco-like view of the frozen wilderness.
The mood changes drastically in the next room, the Arctic, where the paintings are more serene. Icebergs, snow-covered islands surrounded by still waters, and even an almost abstract-looking Eskimo tent feature prominently in this section. “The Lake Superior and Rocky Mountains are searching and seeking and almost challenged,” said Poulin. “He gets to the Arctic and they’re almost quiet and settled.”
In the final section of the exhibition, the Rocky Mountains, the artwork is more imposing and anxious, even. To Poulin, the paintings here represent a spiritual heightening and offer a thrilling tension between inviting the viewer in and keeping them away. Most of the Rocky Mountain paintings have a near-but-yet-so-far feeling to them, such as the rolling, obscured pathways present in Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains.
Be sure to check out the three different versions of Mount Lefroy: two small studies (from 1925 and 1929) and the larger, more fanciful finale painted in 1930. Here we can see how Harris manipulated the mountain over several different adaptations. In the final product, Mount Lefroy looks almost like the Chrysler Building: modern, stylized, and man made.
But in many respects, the best is saved for last. Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountain Paintings VII showcases Harris’ boldest use of color—a deep cerulean—and the most profoundly subtle example of shading in the exhibition. Rolling hills and brown, jagged rocks give way to an explosion of unpredictable white ledges. Each peak reaches barely higher than the one before it, culminating in a final, uncomplicated peak that appears to be scratching the surface of heaven.
Mountains in Snow is an eloquent, powerful statement about man’s quest for transcendence. It is both daunting and divine, representing an everlasting synergy between humans and the Earth that we inhabit. “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness,” said Harris. “Its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer—its cleansing rhythms.”
The Idea of North is an earnestly thoughtful surprise and a stirring introduction to an artist that ought to be a household name. That it has taken nearly 50 years for Harris’ work to be given this kind of treatment in the United States is a strong indication that this will only come around once. You don’t want to miss this.
THE IDEA OF NORTH: THE PAINTINGS OF LAWREN HARRIS. THROUGH 6.12 AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. MFA.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.