Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Overdue biography of Lawren Harris a delight, valuable resource

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The first-ever biography of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris is long-overdue and a delight.

McMaster University professor James King accomplishes for this silver-spooned artist-mystic, silver-tongued nationalist, and latter-day wife-swapping celibate what Ross King (no relation) did for the Group of Seven as a whole in Defiant Spirits (2010).

Inward Journey is written in a sympathetic tone for a broad audience without skimping on footnotes and references, proving at once an energetic read and a valuable resource.

King -- who has made inward journeying his career, having already published numerous biographies on the likes of Virginia Woolf, William Blake and Margaret Laurence -- is a deft and subtle narrator.

The book is well illustrated with images of Harris's work from throughout his career. It also contains numerous photographs of the artist at his sometimes dapper, other times pugnacious, yet always charming best.

King hits all the touchstones of development upon which Harris's reputation as a painter is built: the estheticized slums of Toronto and Halifax; the icy portraits of those for whom the artist felt deep spiritual connection; wilderness landscapes, from the rioting colours and roiling contours of Algoma, to the encrusted whiteness of the Arctic; the geometric abstraction, at once a perfect expression of Harris's transmigratory mindset and utterly impenetrable to anyone lacking taste for theosophy, Harris' spiritual Kool-Aid.

One writer, Robert Linsley, has called theosophy the "ideological inversion of Marxism." It proffered an ersatz radicalism, envisioning social equality through cosmic, rather than class consciousness.

Theosophy lies at the crux of Harris's art, and spiritual solace at the heart of his life story. The proto-new age movement whose doctrine is a cobbled assortment of Eastern mysticism, philosophical Idealism and American Transcendentalism, was Harris' spiritual navigator.

It was the fount that allowed him to maintain intellectual integrity -- his nationalism, the progressive socio-spiritual role he envisioned for art -- and kick back righteously at godless materialism, both economic and metaphysical.

Theosophy also supplied Harris a recipe for marital happiness. Born in Brantford, Ont., in 1885 into means (his family was the Harris in Massey-Harris Co. Ltd.), he also married into wealth and was made miserable by it.

Beyond his membership in the Group of Seven, beyond his crucial defence of modernism at a time when Torontonians could still find a way to agonize over nudity in art, Harris is known for the indiscretion of fleeing his equally well-heeled first wife Beatrice (Phillips) for (Brandon-born) Bess (Larkin), who at the time was herself was wed-locked to Harris's friend, fellow theosophist and Group champion F.B. Housser.

The turmoil and controversy only increases when Harris maintains that their relationship is one of "real spiritual oneness" without sexual intimacy -- "There's to be none of that," he asserts to his tennis partner, artist Peter Haworth.

Prudish and salacious all at once, the story gets better. Harris and Bess flee Canada for the United States, New Hampshire and thence New Mexico. Over a span of six years, from 1934 to 1940, Harris comes to abandon everything he hitherto held dear in his painting -- cascading waterfalls, forests in the throes of autumn, crystalline icebergs -- for sparse geometric landscapes, spatial abstractions.

The couple returned to Canada with the outbreak of the Second World War, but this time they settled in Vancouver, where, as you might expect, they were a hit.

Harris, who died in 1970 at age 84, is not an easy subject. His life harbours many highlights and accomplishments, but it also sustains an undertow of cynicism.

It is tempting to see the son of entrepreneurial Baptists, the promulgator of what one critic called "aristocratic spirituality," as pre-emptively shielded from the world.

He was never a starving artist. His life and art may have been heart felt, but some might say they weren't exactly hard won.

While King sometimes phones it in with phases like "He was a born artist," and does not always chose the most assiduous terms in his formal analysis ("surrealistic" seems at times to be his last descriptive resort), he is neither perfunctory nor aggrandizing.

Inward Journey successfully conveys a sense of something almost preordained, archetypal, about Harris without becoming too inward; that is, without loosing the detail of the everyday, the tip of the iceberg.

 

Andrew Kear is the curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J10

History

Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:07 AM CST: adds fact box

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