Thoroughly Modern Lawren

Steve Martin on the Paintings of Lawren Harris

Whenever I look at a cluster of landscape paintings by members of the Group of Seven I respond exactly as I was intended to, and I think of the very political term, nationalism. Their work would provide a visual language for Canadians that expressed the bracing vigour and wildness of a tough and untamed, empty young country. And then I remember why I always felt, growing up on the Prairies, that these paintings described another country, some place other than mine. This sense of dislocation has been thoroughly examined and discussed in Beyond Wilderness, The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art, edited by John O’Brian and Peter White (McGill Queens Press, 2007). Their introduction concluded in this satisfying way: “While the idea of wilderness demonstrates remarkable resilience in Canada’s national life, it is no longer the authoritative source of power the Group and their associates once claimed it to be.”

Mt. Lefroy, 1930, oil on canvas, 133.5 x 153.5 cm. McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Purchased 1975. Copyright Family of Lawren S Harris. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Dislocation seems an apt word in looking at the decade of Lawren Harris’s paintings selected for the exhibition, “The Idea of North,” co-mounted by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It is curated by the Hammer’s Cynthia Burlingham, the AGO’s curator of Canadian Art Andrew Hunter and Steve Martin, and will open in Los Angeles in October, 2015. Dislocation, because the paintings from the period of the early 1920s to the early 1930s are readings outside of nature, outside of landscape, reflecting instead a spiritual ascension reaching for transcendence. It is a clear line from the influence of Lawren Harris’s studying the American transcendentalists in his student years in Germany to the paintings realized in the decade presented in “The Idea of North.”

Border Crossings talked with Steve Martin who, as well as being one of the exhibition’s curators, is a noted comedian, actor, screenwriter (in June 2015 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute), playwright and a splendid novelist. Martin identifies Harris’s early pursuit of the kind of painting that would appropriately represent what he saw in his home country. Given permission, or inspired by seeing an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings in 1913 at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, New York, he recognized a northern sensibility and with colleagues set out to paint Canada in its own colours and style.

Lake Superior, c. 1923, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 126.9 cm. The Thomson Collection copyright Art Gallery of Ontario. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Harris’s work in “The Idea of North” is more particular and personal than the rugged landscapes that come to mind when typically thinking of Group of Seven paintings. Steve Martin names Harris’s Lake Superior, 1923, as one of his favourites, both resisting and succumbing to its theatricality. In the interview which follows he says, “You get the feeling he has distilled the effects of nature: here are the sunrays, here is the light on the water, and here is the island. In a strange way, he has condensed them into Platonic ideals.” For its almost religious intensity of feeling and for its conjuring the suspension of reality, or the introduction of another element of reality altogether, it is entirely understandable that Martin would be drawn to this theatrical painting and the others like it. He has himself, after all, spent some considerable time on the stage. The affinities are natural.

Steve Martin’s novella, Shopgirl (Hyperion, 2000), was heartbreaking in its rendering—the observations astute, felt and finely drawn, the tender beating hearts right up under their bearers’ skins. It was followed in 2003 by the novel The Pleasure of My Company, also published by Hyperion—so informed, unguarded and closely wrought. Reading the interview which follows I am given the pleasure of Martin’s company and note identifiable cadences, discernments and rhythms which are happily characteristic to him.

“The Idea Of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” is co-organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was curated by Steve Martin in collaboration with Cynthia Burlingham, the Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs at the Hammer Museum and Andrew Hunter, the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition will run in Los Angeles from October 11, 2015 to January 24, 2016 and will subsequently travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from March 12 to June 19, 2016 and to the AGO from July 2 to September 11, 2016.

This interview was conducted on June 23, 2015 by phone with Steve Martin who was in Los Angeles.

Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper), ca. 1934–40, oil on canvas, 127.8 x 152.6 cm. Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery; Gift of the Mendel family, 1965. Copyright Family of Lawren S Harris. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Border Crossings: How did you first encounter Lawren Harris’s work and what was it about it that you found so compelling?

Steve Martin: This is kind of embarrassing, but I first saw it 15 or 20 years ago in a Canadian auction catalogue and being a solipsist and an American, I thought I discovered him. I mistook one of his pictures for a Rockwell Kent and I thought, That’s the greatest Rockwell Kent I’ve ever seen. I have an interest in Kent which has been supplanted by Lawren Harris. But looking at the reproduction I thought, Who is this guy? So I watched him over the years in the catalogues and when I went to Canada to do a film I found books on the Group of Seven and its individual members, JEH Macdonald and AY Jackson. Interestingly, there’s a group in America called The Eight and the eight are similar to the seven but only in this way: they’re not all about one thing. So in The Eight you have John Sloan painting what they call Ashcan pictures and you have William Glackens painting flowers in vases. Likewise the painters in the Group of Seven are very diverse; three or four of them line up with the same theme and then they branch into their own thing.

So Frederick Varley becomes his own kind of painter and does expressionist portraits rather than landscapes.

Exactly. But Harris was my dominant interest. I saw one at auction 10 years ago and I thought, That’s a beautiful picture. I’ll watch and see what it sells for, and the price was two million dollars. I had no idea that Harris was as significant a figure as he turned out to be. Then when I was shooting in Canada, probably about 2003, I wrote Ken Thomson and said I have this fascination with Lawren Harris and I know you are his greatest collector. He wrote back and invited me to come see his paintings, which were promised to the AGO. I went to his office and he took me into this very modest back room where he had these treasures. I was astounded. I think that was probably the first time I had seen a Harris. On subsequent trips I went to the AGO when they were all installed, and fell over backwards.

Mentioning Sloan as an Ashcan School painter reminds me of an early decade in Harris’s career, after he came back from Berlin, when he was an Ashcan painter of sorts, painting urban scenes.

That’s absolutely right. He was interested in the dark gritty side of tenement life.

But the work you and your co-curators have focused on begins in the early 1920s and ends in 1930. Is that the period of his work that most interests you?

Yes, and I’ll tell you why. In the teens I feel that Harris was an impressionist painter, painting street scenes, not so much the Algoma pictures, that’s a little different, but a lot of his most famous pictures are streets, trees and house, with a little twist. You can tell he was working. He was dedicated to improving what he was doing and you can see it start to happen. He started to solidify his images. Where before a mountain would be languidly painted, here he took out his impasto and they become very precise. I interpret that as Lawren Harris becoming modern as he took in all that was coming at him. You have a painter in Canada absorbing Scandinavian painting, we’ll call it modern landscape painting, and something from Rockwell Kent and he makes it his own. He was able to shift and translate these ideas to Emily Carr and Carr became modern because of him. She made spectacular pictures, too, in the modern style.

You mention Scandinavian painting. In 1913 Harris and Macdonald go to the Albright Gallery to see the exhibition of work by Scandinavian painters and they are flummoxed by it. They found a pictorial language that made sense of the land they were looking at and attempting to render. How significant was that encounter?

I think it was significant, transitionally. You can see the Scandinavian influence in some of the early snowscapes after 1915. Harris was influenced generically, saying, Here are some painters who found a voice for their landscape. Let’s find our voice for our landscape. I think that was one of his missions.

I’m intrigued by the question of how much he was influenced by American transcendentalism, through Emerson and Thoreau, and then by theosophy and Madame Blavatsky. Do you see the paintings from the decade as rendering an inward sense in the outside world that was central to theosophy?

Here’s my view. The paintings of the ’20s are not specifically rendered to express transcendentalism or theosophy. I think they did by coincidence express something spiritual. The reason I say this is that later, when he becomes an abstract painter and he’s specifically trying to be theosophical, the pictures don’t have the emotion of the earlier pictures. At that time, he even said he wasn’t trying to be a theosophist in his paintings and later, when he was following theory, the pictures are not as successful. Sometimes a philosophy can motivate and guide an artist but when you look at the end result, the philosophy hasn’t been expressed. What happens is that the artist transforms the philosophy into something more personal. To express a general philosophy like theosophy would be very boring, and every time it happens you go, So what?

The one thing that is conspicuous in its absence is any evidence of human inhabitation. In that sense, these are remarkably abstract paintings. There may be an Inuit tent here or there, but other than that we humans are not even in the game.

What’s interesting is the difference between Harris and Rockwell Kent, and this was Adam Gopnik’s observation. For the most part, Kent kept his figures in, which kept his paintings narrative. I make the point that not only did Harris knock out humanity but he even knocked out organic things. In very few of the pictures, as an example, is the moss painted like moss; it’s just painted green. Everything is essentially lifeless, except the painting has the force of life. So you have a picture with no living thing in it expressing great vitality. That’s when he transcended fundamental landscape painting.

Let’s deal with some specific examples of how these paintings get made. What’s useful is that he makes studies, so Mt. Lefroy has two studies before he completes the large painting in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. What’s your read of how they change from one to the other?

First of all, I think that often the studies are completed paintings. They’re not like drawings where he is working things out. You get the feeling that in different ways, this is as fine as the large painting. He will change something. Maybe the strokes are bigger and broader. There will be two mountain peaks with a little hillside and suddenly it will go to one mountain peak with no hillside. Especially in the Lefroy paintings, the shifts are dramatic and the final picture is almost a solidified abstraction of the smaller works. He comes up with something that didn’t exist in the smaller works. You can also tell when the scene is real and when it becomes unreal. You have a picture like Mountain Forms, 1926, and you know that is an unreal image; it is a symbolic painting. But if you look at a painting like Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountain, 1930, you get the feeling that it’s a real place, even if it has been condensed. The pictures of actual places are the ones I find most compelling. Although Mountains Near Jasper, 1934, seems to be a conflation of many places and is a very powerful picture.

North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 127.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada; Purchased 1975. Copyright Family of Lawren S Harris. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photograph: Copyright National Gallery of Canada.

The light comes down in columns in Lake Superior, c. 1923, has such a strong theatrical presence. That is one of the paintings where you can’t be entirely sure if it’s a rendering of a real place. The way he structures the painting makes you feel there is some degree of artifice going on.

That version of Lake Superior with the streaming sunlight is one of my favourite pictures and it shouldn’t be because it could be a stage set. But it is a very powerful painting. You get the feeling he has distilled the effects of nature: here are the sunrays, here is the light on the water and here is the island. In a strange way, he’s condensed them into Platonic ideals. You almost can’t stop looking at that picture. Harris was criticized by some of his peers for being a bit theatrical but I think that quality is incidental to what he was actually doing.

A painting like Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, 1923, is almost like looking at a proscenium stage from the side. It’s as if you’re seeing something being performed. The descending, radiant light in Lake Superior could as easily be stage lights as emanations from God.

That’s true. But Harris was constantly experimenting and changing and working towards something. When you see a picture like Mountains in Snow, Rocky Mountain Painting VII, in the Thomson Collection it’s virtually perfect and has such an expression of grandeur, even though there’s not a living thing in it. Yet there is so much vitality and it achieves a kind of creamy perfection. In other pictures you feel he’s on his way to something.

Sometimes the paintings look like Superman’s birthplace. They don’t work for me because they’re so self-conscious.

I take your point, but look at a little picture like Arctic Sketch XXII, 1930, from a private collection. While it’s a sketch, you get a feeling of its power. I’ll tell you something, I could stare at these theatrical paintings forever and still love them. Lake Harbour, South Shore Baffin Island Morning, 1930, is a fantastic, crazy painting.

What do you make of the range and intensity of his palette?

My impression going in was that the range of colours was limited. My impression coming out was the range of colours was very broad. Essentially, you think you’re going to see blue and glaciers and then you start to see variations of white, and then sunlight on the clouds and you start to see green and yellow. I was actually set back because I thought I understood this as a constricted palette, but it is not.

That’s an interesting perception because there is a story that the Inuit have 17 words for snow because snow is not only white, but moves between hues of blue and green and lavender. You get a sense that Harris plugs into that wider range of colour.

I think he was a smarter painter than he is given credit for. For example, I’m looking at Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior. We didn’t want anything in the show to be an anomaly but this picture is an anomaly because the show is landscape painting but here you have a house and the house is alive. It’s leaning forward and the landscape is in motion. The water and the sky are in motion and so is the ground and the trees. And that’s a very modern concept for 1923.

In one way it is anomalous but not rhythmically. Harris has the most interesting way of making rhythm work in a painting. There is something entrancing about the way that things shape themselves and move in space.

You’re absolutely right. One of the things that is consistent is the motion of the figures, whether it’s an island, an iceberg, a mountain or the way the snow is laid out. There is a constant that I think of as a force. You can feel the energy and the life force in the landscape.

Lake and Mountains, 1928, oil on canvas, 130.8 x 160.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario; Gift from the Fund of the T Eaton Co. Ltd. for Canadian Works of Art, 1948. Copyright Family of Lawren S Harris. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

One of his most famous paintings is Above Lake Superior, 1922, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. How do you place these paintings that have minimally rendered and stripped down trees in the context of the mountain paintings? Do they tell us something different about what he is thinking?

A picture like North Shore Lake Superior, 1926, in the National Gallery, is his masterpiece. It is a very dramatic picture but he does something really wrong; he places the dead tree directly in the centre of the painting, which is a taboo. If it were a little bit off to the left or to the right, it would be a more balanced composition. It’s like painting a person and their head is at the top of the frame. But it completely works. In my catalogue essay I contrasted him with Edward Hopper. When Hopper painted a tree it would be forlorn and sad. I even talk about a specific watercolour called House with Dead Trees with a shuttered house and dead trees. Lawren Harris has dead trees but they’re always backed up by a promise of sunlight and life and the sun rising, or the sun going down, but they are in the light. I think that’s Canadian. The depression is American.

We’re just sad optimists? We always think it will get better than it will?

Americans seem to be optimistic pessimists. Or false optimists who are always getting beaten back. I can see here Harris saying here, Look how good this is, look how good it is, and there are very few American paintings after the Hudson River painters who say, Look how good it is.

I thought of The Luminists in connection with Harris and wonder if they have anything in common with his view that the landscape can become a repository for a positive relationship between man and nature?

The Hudson River painters are so different in their attention to detail. By this time Harris has lost his attention to detail; you don’t see every leaf on every tree. I think the Hudson River painters were generally selling America and I don’t think Lawren Harris is selling Canada. I think he is painting a personal draft of his landscape.

In a profound way he is trying to define Canada. The search for Harris and the Group was to find a pictorial language that made sense of the place in which they found themselves, and the pride they had in being Canadian. When you get right down to it, they are pretty fierce nationalists.

I think you are absolutely right. The fact that Harris’s pictures are almost illegal to sell outside of Canada suggests that heritage is being protected.

You mentioned Isolation Peak, 1929, an incredibly complex and elegant composition. Where do you place it in his work?

I went to see that painting in the Hart House Collection at the University of Toronto. I had seen it in reproduction and thought we had to get it for the show. But when I saw it in person it was 10 times the painting I had seen in reproduction. It’s 42 by 50 inches and is so elegant. The mood is strangely calming. Hopper expresses isolation as desolation and Harris expresses isolation as exaltation. When you see isolation in a Hopper painting you say, That’s my depression, exactly. When you see it in a Harris painting you say, That’s my joy. That’s the glory of being alive. ❚