by Maisie Cu
Through the works of Canada’s Group of Seven, the search for the Canadian identity was addressed through the creation of artworks. While reflecting on this topic, I must look deeper into what shaped the country independent from its colonial identity after World War I. In this sense, to fully understand the deep essence of the Canadian psyche, a distinctive vision has to be claimed. Lawren Harris’ 1926 North Shore, Lake Superior1, painting is considered to be one of the most significant works in claiming Canadian identity due to his sublime depiction of a Northern Canadian landscape. The painting carries a sense of spiritual affirmation manifesting through every formal visual element as an attempt to reclaim national identity through the philosophy of theosophy.
Lawren Harris took a simple compositional approach to the landscape painting, North Shore, Lake Superior. Harris was direct in his spatial construction. An empty tree stump situated in the centre of the painting splits the composition. The tree stump itself is divided by a large fracture defined by a darker usage of colour, this fracture allows for the illusion of a palm holding up the sky. The stump is illuminated with the glowing sunlight on one half and blanketed by a shadow on the other. Harris reduced the natural forms of the stump and surrounding environment into abstract shapes, capturing the essence of the space rather than its literal representation. The colour palette used is limited in range as Harris had restricted himself to only certain hues, predominantly blues. This technique allows Harris to easily highlight the main focal point, that being the decaying tree stump. The use of tinting certain hues with the use of white oil paints and darkening them with blacks, creates dimensionality in the work. The yellow hue captures the illuminating quality of sunlight transitioning from opaque to translucent. The tree stump stands empty and erected with graduated shades of greys. The blue of water is complimented by the green-blue hue in the sky. The painting utilises horizontal and vertical lines to create a sense of dimensional space. There is a feeling of landscape continuation due to the presence of thin outlines which allow the composition to become monumental. The entirety of the composition has a dimension of 40 x 50”. The texture of the painting is smooth and incredibly well blended due to the nature of oil paint.
However, to think that North Shore, Lake Superior is a mere depiction of nature without a deeper meaning is somewhat reductive as Lawren Harris was also a theosophist. His works were deeply rooted in the quest for a bridge of man between the banality of life and the mystical divine:
“Art is a realm of life- between our mundane world. The world of the spirit between the infinite diversity of manifested life and the unity or harmony of spirit. Or - between the Temporal world and the realm of enduring and incorruptible ideation” (Harris,1964)
In the final leg of the nineteenth century and the rise of the scientific revolution, the world encountered various religious movements across North America. Alongside these movements, various traditional beliefs had been scrutinised and attacked with philosophical theory, such as Various forms of traditional beliefs have gone under attack with theoriesy such as the rejection of Christianity by Nietzche (Introvigne, 2014).
Having the shift of the new world as a catalyst along with Harris’s time in Berlin, Harris had been exposed to theosophical, esoteric, transcendentalism Easterneatern philosophy, as well as the work of Wassily Kandinsky. It is possible to claim the influence of theosophy in his practice. However, a defining moment in his career happened in January 1913 when he and MacDonald travelled to Buffalo, New York to see the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art which struck him in awe for the recognition of kindred spirits.
“Here was a large number of paintings which corroborated our ideas. Here were the paintings of Northern lands created in the spirit of those lands and through the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them. Here was an art, bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct, first-hand experience of the great North. As a result of that experience our enthusiasm increased and our conviction was reinforced” (Harris 1964) .
Thus North Shore, Lake Superior can be seen as Harris’s spiritual quest for not only the meaning of his life but also of a Canadian identity. For Harris, art is considered to be a direct manifestation to interpret the spirit of Canada after decades of the Confederation. The painting takes inspiration from the European symbolists and Post-Impressionists in their rebellions towards realistic depiction of things which can be seen in its simple composition. Harris abstracted and reduced the tree stump into a mere geometrical solidity of shapes. The stump then, splits in half, almost resembles a touch of a palm holding up the sky which is synthesised as a recapitulation of Canadian identity in the unknown pictorial space. It is not the physical space- the shore, the mountain, the sky and the sun that we are concerned of, but a symbolic space that Harris was trying to capture through abstraction as a metaphor. It is interesting to see a depiction of the stump with no leaves but full of essence. This act ofs as symbolic manifestation can be seen as the fight of Canadian artists to be free from the Colonial art traditions. Criticism of the painting called it to be distasteful and too decadent for the gloomy postwar era and an insult to common decency. (Poon, 2009).
Despite harsh criticism, Harris was successful in achieving various means of reformulating Canadian identity through North Shore, Lake Superior. Embracing simplicity as a theosophical philosophy of transcendence was important, every visual element is kept to the minimum : restricted colour range, thin outlines, simple forms with no vision of harsh brush strokes. This aspect of his painting allows a direct communication between the Canadian public to the essence or “spirit” of nature. Even the title of the painting is kept to the minimum - North Shore, Lake Superior acts as an representation symbol of the painting rather than the painting itself. Functioning as a zealous external manifestation of the Canadian psyche in an exhibit space, the painting has definitely reached the height of the Canadian public to be seen as a new symbol of the country. They saw the northern landscape to be a passage of the divine to transcend Canada’s unique character with a sense of heroic stir to the pulsivity of national identity. The public acknowledged themselves in the stump of Haris’s painting as a realisation of their liberation from the banality of industrial life and in turn created a sense of encouragement. In hindsight, his painting was considered to be too revolutionary for conservative attachment to the muted colonial era. There’s also a concern regarding harmony and unity in the painting as a direct influence of Theology philosophical ideas as seeking for truth. The rigidity in forms and shape of the tree stump in contrast to the fluidity and curvature of the lines of the clouds in the background push forward the composition to a totality. This allows the painting life to extend beyond its domain of visual representation and form a mystical life of its own. Each shade of colour acts as a sole manifestation of its own being, laying next to each other claiming its own independence from other elements of the painting. The painting captures the quest for light as Harris believed light would permeate all the dark corners of the human soul. Hence, the illuminating yellow can be seen as a translation of energy into the non objectivity metaphysical form.
North Shore, Lake Superior was able to find a sense of Canadian identity through Harris’s theosophical depiction of Northern nature. The painting is so profound due to its meaning not only as Lawren Harris artistic achievement but also as an affirmation of a spiritual place for the Canadian public.
Ambler, Dawn. Lawren Harris: A theosophist who painted. Ottawa, University of Ottawa, May 2002. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/6230.
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Hall, Kathleen. “Theosophy and the Emergence of Modern Abstract Art.” The Theosophical Society, 2002, https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/42-publications/quest-magazine/1446-theosophy-and-the-emergence-of-modern-abstract-art.
Harris, Lawren. The Story of the Group of Seven. Toronto, Toronto : Rous & Mann, 1964.
Introvigne, Massimo. “Theosophy and the Visual Arts: The Nordic Connection.” 2014, https://www.cesnur.org/2014/Nordic%20Theosophy%20and%20the%20Arts%20London.pdf.
Poon, Jessica. "Harmonious Disagreement": painters eleven, abstraction and the construction of Canadian Modernism. Barnard College, 2009. https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0368718.
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The Art Gallery of Ontario