When Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms sold for $11.2 million at auction last November, it set a new record for a Canadian painting. But it was an honour the painter had already held twice before. The artist ‘discovered’ by Steve Martin (even Martin chuckles at the notion) had clearly been beloved by others for a long time.
Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris, a new film by Peter Raymont (Shake Hands With The Devil) and Nancy Lang, explores Harris’s life and influences, from his 1885 birth in Brantford, to his death 84 years later in Vancouver.
Here are five things we learned from the documentary:
He skipped a few grades
Harris wasn’t the best student, and only got as far as grade 10. But his artistic skill was enough for him to be accepted into the University of Toronto as an art student. From there, he spent three years in Berlin, where his mentors worked on German landscapes; he would help create a Canadian one.
He was shaken by the war years
Harris’s brother Howard was killed while inspecting a German trench in 1918. Meanwhile, friend and fellow painter Tom Thomson had died mysteriously in Algonquin Park the previous year. With his Christian faith shaken, he became a student of the mystical teachings of theosophy, which may have helped shape his later, more abstract works.
He was a writer too
Harris was a poet; he wrote about the ‘slack, sagging fences’ in the St. John’s Ward district of Toronto, which he also painted. (Colm Feore supplies the voice of Harris in voiceovers.) And he was briefly a reporter, commissioned to write about the 1925 miners’ strike in Glace Bay, N.S. Of course, he painted there as well.
He helped re-inspire Emily Carr
Carr was well known but had effectively given up painting for 15 years when she visited Harris’s studio in 1927. ‘Something has spoken to the very soul of me,’ she later said of the encounter. For his part, Harris told her: ‘You are one of us’.
He was nothing if not meticulous
A tireless painter – he worked right up until his death in 1970 – Harris would begin his works with a pencil sketch, on which he would scribble notes on colour, depth and lighting, almost like a paint-by-numbers. He would then work on a small oil painting, before moving to another, larger version. Climbers have said they could scale some of the Rockies’ peaks with just a Harris painting as a guide.
– Chris Knight, National Post