Steve Martin’s curatorial involvement with “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” is no mere sop to celebrity. At the press preview for the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he related that the first time he saw a Harris, he thought it was the best Rockwell Kent he had ever seen. You don’t make mistakes that astute without a razor-sharp eye. Martin developed an avidity for Harris and introduced the artist’s work to the Hammer Museum director, Ann Philbin. She was thus moved to organize “The Idea of North,” a best-of-best selection of Harris’s work that demonstrates why Canada so reveres him.
While in Boston, “The Idea of North” hangs alongside two other installations, one of which is Martin’s welcome shakeup of the Arthur Doves and Georgia O’Keeffes in the museum’s Lane Gallery. That context highlights the degree to which the 1920s and ’30s saw a kind of systematic modernism take hold. The system was to reduce figurative subjects to geometry to a greater or lesser degree (Dove and O’Keeffe respectively), and model the geometries from one edge to another with a gradient of paint. This is not only where we get the aforementioned North Americans, but also figures such as Tamara de Lempicka, preceded by the Delaunays and the Italian Futurists. There are echoes of Art Deco in all of them.
Harris painted his mature landscapes with an obvious routine. He generalized the trees into cylinders, mountainsides into cones, and clouds into ovoids, though not so much as to make them unrecognizable as figurative painting. He modeled them with a personalized version of the six-tone system (highlight, light, midtone, shadow, reflected light, cast shadow) that had been worked out in the Renaissance. Yet the obviousness of the technique makes them look striking rather than rote. The bone-colored, bare trees in Lake Superior (ca. 1924) stand nobly in front of a round rock that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ernie Bushmiller comic, such is its graphic elegance. In another Lake Superior painting from around 1923, beams of sunlight rise like towers into undulating clouds.
Systems, conventions, and theories are indispensable to art, but they have zero value as art. Systems guarantee only a certain kind of result—abstract, realistic, painterly, or what have you. They do not guarantee that the result will be any good. So when the results are as forceful as they are in “The Idea of North,” one must admire the graceful waltz of inspiration and method. You couldn’t have one without the other.
One of the pleasures of this show is the pairing of larger works, the width of outstretched arms, with the small oil studies on Beaverboard with which he prepared for them. (The catalogue additionally has a chapter on his drawings, which illuminate his process still further.) For a while in the late Teens and early Twenties, everyone associated with the Group of Seven was trying to out-paint Tom Thomson. Harris’s little studies on board recall Thomson’s exquisite field sketches, though he imposes his own sense of structure upon the landscape. The 1929 study on board for a painting that became known as Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains (ca. 1929), which he more or less made up out of his head after multiple trips to the Canadian Rockies, has the distinctive painterly look of oils on a hard surface. Scaling an image from fourteen inches to four feet tempts a painter to load the additional space with the same level of detail. In this case, the larger Isolation Peak is simpler than the study. He closed in on the mountain, broadened and smoothed the turquoise fields of snow flowing from it, and changed the Arthur Dove-ish bands of blue sky into a subtle gradation.
Around 1934, Harris read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, got tangled up in the occultist bunkum of Theosophy, went abstract, and never painted anything worth a damn again. To find another example of an artistic path so gallingly derailed by misplaced spiritual yearnings, you have to go back to Botticelli’s hapless fascination with Savonarola. Those abstractions are not here, nor are the able paintings leading up to the ones in “The Idea of North,” worthy explorations of other styles and other subjects that one can see aplenty at the Art Gallery of Ontario (to where this show will travel next) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The result is an exhibition of the artist at his apex, distilling the northern landscape into a powerful formalism, its temperament incisive like a gust of arctic wind.