Having resided in this country for more than 15 years, what I miss the most about my home and native land is the natural scenery. This isn’t to say there isn’t wondrous natural surroundings in the United States. But growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, made me spoiled in some respects.
In the house that was our family’s for more than 30 years, one could walk out on our second story balcony and see the Sleeping Giant (a.k.a. Nanabijou) overlooking Lake Superior. Turn slightly right and one could see Mount McKay (a.k.a. Thunder Mountain). The trees were a shade of green darker than I have known anywhere else.
My mother was born and raised in Coleman, Alberta. Situated in the Crowsnest Pass along the Canadian Rockies, my maternal grandfather spent 43 years working in a coal mine beginning at the age of 15. It was hard work, but he was fortunate to have a job during the Great Depression. My grandfather was not a particularly religious man, but he did have a source of sustenance — the mountains. In fact, there was a big mountain right across the street from his house and he loved to look at it. When ill health forced him to move to Ottawa in the final years of his life, he would tell me how much he missed those mountains.
It should come as no surprise that Canada’s natural scenery should serve as a source of artistic inspiration. The most enduring example of that inspiration is the Group of Seven. Not be confused with the G-7, Canada’s Group of Seven was a collection of Canadian painters who rose to fame during the 1920s. They became known for drawing attention to Canada’s landscapes in a simple, bright yet abstract style. They consisted of Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, and Lawren Harris.
Since March, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has been showing the works of Lawren Harris in an exhibit called “The Idea of North” which was curated by Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. The wild and crazy guy himself. Naturally, when one thinks of Steve Martin, one immediately thinks of comedy. Music might also come to the mind for some others. A long respected banjo player, in recent years, Martin has recorded a string of highly acclaimed bluegrass albums.
But Martin is also serious art collector. His passion for paintings goes back nearly half a century before he became a worldwide celebrity when he bought a painting by the 19th century American artist James Gale Tyler. Over the years, Martin has owned paintings by the likes of Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon.
So what drew Martin to Harris? As he told the Toronto Star last year, “Harris took the landscape and he kind of abstracted it. I’m looking for the right word and that’s not it. But he’s made them less organic and assembled them as forms.” Martin added, “I believe in this work,” he says. “It’s time for Harris to sit where he belongs.”
The “Idea of North” exhibit will remain in Boston until June 12th. The collection will then proceed for a showing this summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Martin previously exhibited Harris’s work in Los Angeles.
I had the opportunity to view “The Idea of North” twice. The exhibit revolved around Harris’s works around Lake Superior, the Arctic, and the Rockies. Naturally, when I look at the Lake Superior paintings it takes me back to Thunder Bay while paintings of the Rockies remind me of my grandfather. Taken together, Harris’s paintings evoke a calm and serenity that is welcome during chaotic and insane times. The sharpness of the snow-covered peaks on paintings such as “Mt. Leroy,” “Mountain Forms,” “Lakes & Mountains,” and “Mt. Thole, Bylot Island” contrasts brilliantly with the blue and gray colored skies. I find Harris’s use of light in “Lake Superior” (1923) absolutely breathtaking every time I look at it.
While Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven retain iconic status in Canada, it will take time before Lawren Harris is spoken of in the world of art in the same breath as Picasso, Bacon, and Hopper. But thanks to Steve Martin, Harris is getting a due that is long overdue.
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