When we think about Canadian art, we tend to think, not of 19th-century masters like Homer Watson or Paul Kane, but of the Group of Seven, and more specifically, of Tom Thomson. We also think of the handful of mature works Thomson completed before his life was mysteriously shortened in 1917, including two of Northern Ontario landscapes: The Jack Pine (1916–17) and The West Wind (1916–17). These are both melancholy paintings, more brooding than pastoral or picturesque.
In The Jack Pine, the limbs of the tree are set in the foreground, painted to look like a human figure, overburdened and drooping. The lake in the painting is a smooth, snowy white, with the hills beyond stark and black, and the sun setting. In The West Wind, the foregrounded tree, which again reads like a figure and maybe even a stand-in for the painter himself, has been tortured into shape by the wind. The lake water is studded with whitecaps as clouds tear across the sky. Both of these paintings are of what one might call a New World wilderness, a wilderness that had long been inhabited and envisioned by Indigenous peoples and also which, by 1917, was already at risk of vanishing under the expanding shadow of industrial civilization.
While Thomson’s work is revered in Canada as a defining national treasure, his work has elicited little interest south of the border. Consider, by contrast, Pic Island (1924) and North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), both by the Group of Seven’s most unusual member, Lawren Harris, and included in the travelling retrospective, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, curated by American comedian, actor and writer Steve Martin.
In Pic Island, a spare, curvaceous, erotic island is afloat on a white raft of snow and ice; above, mirroring peninsulas of cloud glide across the blue. The source of light is high and magisterial and absent, casting bright rivers of cold light onto the ice, the horizon a curving band of blue. North Shore, Lake Superior, on the other hand, is more iconic and monumental. In the foreground is a denuded stump, white and riven through its centre as though by a bolt of lightning, rising out of a rolling outcrop, light descending in otherworldly sheets.
Contemplating these relatively early, transitional works, it becomes clear that, unlike Thomson’s, these are not really about the experience of landscape but rather are austere, spiritually ecstatic ruminations on the inner world. While there is a natural temptation to think of these paintings as emblems of a national, and colonial, project (and some critics have even proposed that the whiteness that dominates many of his paintings suggests the whiteness of the European settlers that overran the continent), these paintings, while taking landscapes as their point of departure, are universal, not really located anywhere. That may be one of the reasons why Lawren Harris’s work in particular has resonated so powerfully for Americans.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris has been slightly different at each stop. In Toronto, Harris’s remarkable paintings of Toronto’s erstwhile downtown immigrant slum, St. John’s Ward, were on display, along with stunning photographs by Arthur Goss and William James. The images by Goss, the first official photographer of Toronto, are an especial find, many of them of Toronto’s debris-strewn back alleys, of children standing in deep snow outside houses that are really just shacks.
Nonetheless, the core of The Idea of North comes in the wake of Harris’s single trip to the eastern Arctic on the SS Beothic in 1930. It was in engaging with the Arctic that he distilled and refined ideas that began in paintings like Pic Island and North Shore, Lake Superior; and it was in his visions of the Arctic that his paintings pulled away from the specificities of geographic place and sailed into an unfamiliar place of the mind. Icebergs, Davis Strait (1930), for instance, has two incandescent blue icebergs afloat under a swarming, and menacing, dark grey sky; what light there is here seems to radiate up from within. North Shore, Baffin Island (1930), by contrast, is compressed and formally precise but less forbidding: biomorphic hills roll back from grey to blue to the white, clouds streaming across the mineral blue sky.
Lawren Harris’s 1930 trip to the Arctic, a trip no other Group of Seven member save A.Y. Jackson made, was in most ways a standard if lengthy and arduous tourist excursion. He took photographs, too — of the ship churning through ice-clogged straits, of icebergs, of coastal mountains, and of the Inuit: a group of children and a family at their summer home in Pangnirtung, Baffin Island. He also made at least one oil sketch that acknowledged the Inuit, Eskimo Tent, Pangnirtung, Baffin Island (1930). The tent is almost a geological formation among other rocky forms in the sketch, pale across from steep, dark cliffs.
Harris had little or no interest in the people who had actually lived in the north for thousands of years and whose cultures and ways of life were at that moment in the process of being irreversibly destroyed; and he certainly would have had no idea that at the very time he was there, a future great Inuit artist, Pitseolak Ashoona, had already been born and was probably travelling with her family along the shores. Harris was compelled, not by the real North, but by the idea of north, which was not a place or a nation but a mode of the mind and spirit.