I wanted to like it.
As a child and teen, Lawren Harris was one of my favourite artists. Steve Martin was and is one of my favourite comedians, actors, and writers.
But when I got to “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” something was lost in the translation. I wonder, thinking about such things as the French embrace of Jerry Lewis, as to whether Steve Martin’s version of Harris –passionate though it may be—misses something.
I quite liked the earnest little film of Martin talking about his discovery of Harris, mistaking him at first for Rockwell Kent. That was my only brief encounter with Kent, but what struck me immediately was an aspect of Harris’s work that I’d never thought about before, something that hadn’t troubled me.
Kent’s paintings in juxtaposition to Harris’s work reminded me of the dual exhibit of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, a recent AGO show I liked very much. At the time I’d been struck by how abstract Moore seemed, compared to Bacon, and here I was again, possibly making a simplistic comparison.
Let me cut to the chase, telling you what I love about Harris, especially in this show, and what I felt was being disrupted by this presentation of his work. For me Harris is extremely stylized, showing us a vision of rocks and trees, sky and water, that rarely resembles the subject. Because we know what’s being signified it doesn’t trouble us to see trees that don’t look like real trees or mountains that don’t look like real mountains. We may as well be looking at a visual allegory, a symbolic picture.
Symbol is really the key word. I was reminded of Paul Gaugin and Maurice Denis in the handling of the colours, a pair of painters I associate with the symbolists, even though their works date from the 1890s, not the 1920s and ‘30s. And as a painter whose images of Canadian landscape is so completely reified –without any signs of genuine life but instead from a symbolic (or symbolist) tableau—perhaps the paintings should be accompanied by the music of Debussy or Satie.
And so I believe the problem with this show is that we’re not embracing symbol but fighting against it. We see photos and attempts to illuminate Harris’s vision. Pardon me, but when I am in a theatre seeing an opera or a movie, please don’t interrupt my reverie with images of the actors out of costume, of biographical details. Yes, later on I’m happy to view such things on the DVD. But as I walk through the gallery, as I seek to sink into a reverie with these paintings, to be yanked out again and again? Not helpful, not respectful, not what I liked at all.
Upstairs there’s a show that blew me away from an American artist, Theaster Gates. It’s political edginess strikes a chord in this season of rallies by Black Lives Matter, BLM being only one small footnote to this show. First and foremost, I found Gates stimulating. Sometimes touching, sometimes achingly vulnerable, there’s a lot to think about, lots to feel.
But perhaps it’s more important to say that I was able to access Gates in a way that I couldn’t really access Lawren Harris. I kept bumping into the curating vision of all the other minds, all that big money seeking to tell me how great Lawren Harris is, and who Lawren Harris is. And in the process, they interrupted my delight in his paintings, because –excuse me– Lawren Harris is new to me the way Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz is new to me: one of my favourite artists since childhood. Only one room really allowed me –near the end of the second part of the show—to fully sink into the experience of Harris’s paintings. Am i sounding petulant? perhaps. To repeat: i wanted to like it. I really did.
And make no mistake, there are a great many wonderful paintings there. Perhaps the key is to look at the art and ignore the many messages from curators and historians. Don’t listen to people tell you who Harrris is. Maybe they’re more accurate than I in understanding him? Could be! But if you go to this show and find it’s not working for you, there are at least two possible strategies I would suggest for you to take, that I took:
- Go upstairs to the fifth floor, where you can see an artist’s vision unencumbered by curatorial intervention. The energy and joy coming at you are unmistakeable.
- Buy the book. I think I came to know Harris from books, where his reified understanding of our landscape –an idea of north if ever there was one –comes through most clearly.
And when I go back to the show I will concentrate on the paintings. Just as we didn’t really need the French to tell us who Jerry Lewis really was, perhaps we can find Lawren Harris for ourselves.