Lawren Harris: An Introduction

     As a rule, when associations are formed by youthful artists, they break up as the styles of the artists composing them become more individual. But the Group of Seven, who did so much to revitalize Canadian painting in the twenties and later of this century, still retain some of the characteristics of a group. Seven is a sacred number, and the identity of the seventh, like the light of the seventh star of the Pleiades, has fluctuated somewhat, attached to different painters at different times. But the permanent six, of whom four are still with us, have many qualities in common, both as painters and in fields outside painting. For one thing, they are, for painters, unusually articulate in words. J. E. H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris wrote poetry; Harris, as this book shows, (Lawren Harris: edited by Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove; Macmillan of Canada; pp. xii, 146; 1969.) wrote also a great deal of critical prose; A. Y. Jackson produced a most entertaining autobiography; Arthur Lismer, through his work as educator and lecturer, would still be one of the greatest names in the history of Canadian art even if he had never painted a canvas. For another, they shared certain intellectual interests. They felt themselves part of the movement towards the direct imaginative confrontation with the North American landscape which, for them, began in literature with Thoreau and Whitman. Out [207] of this developed an interest for which the word theosophical would not be too misleading if understood, not in any sectarian sense, but as meaning a commitment to painting as a way of life, or, perhaps better, as a sacramental activity expressing a faith, and so analogous to the practising of a religion. This is a Romantic view, following the tradition that begins in English poetry with Wordsworth. While the Group of Seven were most active, Romanticism was going out of fashion elsewhere. But the nineteen-sixties is once again a Romantic period, in fact almost oppressively so, so it seems a good time to see such an achievement as that of Lawren Harris in better perspective.

     This remarkable book presents a fine selection of Lawren Harris's paintings, in the context of the various speeches, essays, poems, letters, notebook jottings, and drafts of books by which he tried to express his conception of art as an activity of life, and not something separable from it. What he says forms the context of the paintings, and the paintings form the context of what he says. Much of what he says might seem over-general or lacking in applicability if we did not see it, with the expert and patient help of the editors, as specifically illustrated by the painting. An example is the placing of his painting "The Bridge" beside a number of statements about art as various forms of a bridge. Even so he has some difficulty in saying in words what he says so eloquently in the pictures. One reason for this is that our language is naturally Cartesian, based on a dualism in which the split between perceiving subject and perceived object is the primary fact of experience. For the artist, whatever may be true of the scientist, the real world is not the objective world. As Shelley, another Romantic, insisted, it is only out of laziness or cowardice that we take the objective world to be the real one. The attempt to produce a "realism" which is only an illusion of our ordinary objectifying sense leads to insincere painting, technique divorced from intelligence. But, says Harris, art is not caprice either. The artist, unlike the psychedelic, does not confuse the creative consciousness with the subjective or introverted consciousness. Fantasy-painting becomes insincere also whenever it evades the struggle with [208] the material which is the painter's immediate task. The genuine artist, Harris is saying, finds reality in a point of identity between subject and object, a point at which the created world and the world that is really there become the same thing.

     In Harris's earlier works, the paintings of houses and streets in Toronto and the Maritimes and that extraordinary piece of Canadian Gothic, the portrait of Salem Bland, we are struck at once by the contemplative quality of the painting, by the intensity with which the painter's whole mind is concentrated on his object -- or, as the curious vagaries of language have it, his "subject." Because of this meditative intensity, the painting is representational. But it is very far from what is often called photographic realism, although what this phrase usually refers to is just as bad in photography as it is in painting. The sombre, brooding miners' cottages and the bizarre lights and shadows of a Toronto street, with their unpredictable splashes of colour (deftly illustrated by the editors in placing one of the painter's poems beside a similar picture), stare at us with an emotional intensity which ordinary eyesight cannot give us. This intensity is, of course, the kind of thing we turn to pictures for. But neither do we have the feeling that this emotional power is simply there as a reflection of what the painter felt and was already determined to impose on whatever he saw. Such paintings are the painter's inventions, a word which means both something made and something found. There is tension and struggle between the act of seeing and the resistance of the thing seen: we who see the picture participate in the struggle, and so make our own effort to cross the pons asinorum of art, the "bridge" between the ordinary subject and the ordinary object.

     Lawren Harris makes it clear that what drove him and his colleagues out to the northern part of Canada was their distrust of the "picturesque," that is, the pictorial subject which suggests a facile or conventional pictorial response. His paintings of Lake Superior and the Rockies are as much of an exploration as the literal or physical explorations of La Vèrendrye or Mackenzie. Harris remarks on the "austerity" [209] of nature: she does not tell the artist what to do; she speaks in riddles and oracles, and the painter is an Oedipus confronting a sphinx. He also insists on how necessary it was for him, as for his associates, to seek a three-dimensional grasp of what MacDonald called the "solemn land," to avoid the merely decorative as he avoided all other forms of pictorial narcissism, the landscape which is merely in front, looked at but not possessed. A picture has to suggest three dimensions before it can suggest four, before the object can become a higher reality by becoming also an event, a moment suspended in time.

     It has been said of some Canadian painters, notably Thomson, that their sketches are often more convincing than the worked-up picture. The former gives more of a sense of painting in process, as an event in time, as a recording of the act of vision, and the final picture, it is said, sometimes becomes monumental at the expense of vitality and immediacy. The editors have juxtaposed some paintings with their preparatory sketches so that the reader can judge for himself as regards Lawren Harris. But there is no doubt that this painter felt the tension between process and product of painting, and that his logical development from stylized landscape to abstraction was his way of escaping from it.

     In the abstract paintings the rudiments of representation are still there, with triangle and circle replacing mountain and horizon; but the stylizing and simplifying of outline have been carried a step -- perhaps one should say a dimension -- further. The more dependent a picture is on representation, the more epigrammatic it is, and the more it stresses the immediate context, in space and time, of a particular sense experience. The effect of stylizing and simplifying is to bring out more clearly, not what the painter sees, but what he experiences in his seeing. Abstraction sets the painter free from the particular experience, and enables him to paint the essence of his pictorial vision, with each picture representing an infinite number of possible experiences. The units of the picture have become symbols rather than objects, and have become universal without ceasing to be particular. [210]

     Traditionally, the metaphor of the magician has often been used for the artist: the Orpheus whose music moved trees, the Prospero whose fancies are enacted by spirits. The kernel of truth in the metaphor is that the artist's mind seeks a responding spirit in nature (Harris speaks of "informing cosmic powers" in his landscapes). This responding spirit is not a ghost or a god or an elf like Puck, but the elemental spirit of design, the quality in nature which for the artist, as for the scientist in a different way, contains what can be identified with the searching intelligence. Such design is often quasi-geometrical in form -- the "books" of Prospero that Caliban so feared and hated would have been, being magic books, full of geometrical and cabalistic designs. This geometrical magic has always been an informing principle of painting, though it was probably Cézanne who was most influential in stressing its importance for the modern painter. There are many kinds of abstract painting: those that are clear and sharp in outline emphasize the rigorous control of the object by the consciousness; others express rather a sense of the inner power of nature, the exploding energy that creates form. Both kinds are prominent in, for instance, Kandinsky. Most of Lawren Harris's abstractions reflect a strict conscious control of experience, as one would expect from the clarity of outline in the landscapes that preceded them. But in the two remarkable 1967 paintings reproduced near the end of the book, there is a sense of a relaxation of control, as though the informing cosmic powers themselves were taking over from the painter.

     After the conservative stock responses to the Group of Seven ("hot mush school" and the like) were over, there followed radical and left-wing stock responses which accused them of the decadent bourgeois vice of introversion, turning their backs on society and its problems to develop their own souls in the solitudes of the north. One thing that will strike the reader of this book at once is the painter's social concern, a concern which actually increases as he goes further into abstract techniques. The first and most important of his "bridges" is the bridge between the artist and his society. He [211] is missionary as well as explorer: not a missionary who wants to destroy all faith that differs from his own, but a missionary who wants to make his own faith real to others. Just as a new country cannot become a civilization without explorers and pioneers going out into the loneliness of a deserted land, so no social imagination can develop except through those who have followed their own vision beyond its inevitable loneliness to its final resting place in the tradition of art. The record of an imaginative journey of remarkable integrity and discipline is what is commemorated in this book.


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