North to Lawren Harris Country
One of Canada's best painters, Lawren Harris (1885- 1970), continues to fascinate me.
Partly it's my attachment to the North. I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester, NY. One of my parents had gone to school in Toronto and used to speak excitedly of that experience. When you're 5 and 6 years old, hearing there was "another country" on the other side of the water summoned up all sorts of imaginative visions. I used to climb to the top of the highest hill near my house and strain to see this strange place called Canada. One couldn't of course, but that just added to the intrigue.
Lawren Harris was the key figure in the early 20th century Canadian movement known as the Group of Seven. I learned about their work as my sister Kathy lives in Toronto and began sending me postcards of Harris's work early on in my painting career.
Above is one of Harris' views of Lake Superior. I particularly like the water's surface with its otherworldly cold blue green hue. Harris is a master of creating inventive silhouettes to break up areas that otherwise would be flat and lifeless. He knows well how to gradate the tones in his shapes, heightening the contrast to draw attention to some and turning the volume down on others.
Below is a plein air oil where Harris seems to be painting through squinted eyes (no doubt he was) to break down a complex mosaic of forest branches into a simple pattern. His thinking was to assign each tree branch to be on one of his three "teams", each with its own distinctive colored team jersey- light yellow green, the middle toned heavier green, or the more sparse very dark greens. I'd have loved to see a photograph of the source Harris was working from- I bet it would look completely different and dizzying in its complexity. In the painted version, a more essential and more simple rhythm emerges. It's rich, but not too much to digest.
Another Lake Superior panorama.
Below some half melted snow does an intricate dance with the black rocky mass of the mountain. I think the delight Harris takes in the abstract patterns here rivals anything the American painter Franz Kline managed a few years later in his Abstract Expressionist canvases.
And here's a final Lake Superior oil. It has a lot going on. I love the cool silvery sheen on the water that plays off beautifully against the gradations of warmer yellow greens in the sky. In the foreground there are again the inventive patterns of half melted snow interspersed among the burnt sienna colored soil. Their shapes seem to mimic the silhouettes of white seagulls' wings. Harris shows some of the same gestures in the white highlighted clouds.
Why does it all matter?
Well, I think most of us often feel life is speeding by us so fast that we can't really take it in. It can seem everything is stuck on a "Fast Forward" setting. A well painted image of the world like what Harris often achieved has a mysterious ability to catch hold of this fleeting and surging energy. For a moment the painting holds things still for us, containing the rush, and giving us a chance to take things in slowly. It's a chance to savor the balance of both movement and peaceful equilibrium.
Painting at its best is a tool to let us feel we understand. It's a chance to push away our confusions and dizziness long enough to let us appreciate the deep, sensual beauty that is out there. It helps us be open enough to take it in.
I suppose I'm particularly excited by Lawren Harris' imagery because it speaks to my childhood of growing up on the shore of Lake Ontario, dreaming about this "foreign land" the adults called Canada. But if his work is well enough painted, and I feel it very often is, I think his painting has a magic to anyone who has ever marveled at the play of lights over any stream or river, pond or ocean. There is a kind of music out there. Lawren Harris is showing us how to hear some of it.