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Lawren Harris: landscapes become abstract

The Story

Lawren Harris plans to keep painting until he can't do it anymore. At age 75, he doesn't know how much longer that will be. His output has changed considerably since the heyday of the Group of Seven, when he was painting Lake Superior and Canada's Arctic. Now his work is entirely abstract, and interviewer Percy Saltzman challenges him on it, saying abstract art "doesn't relate to people and their experiences." 

Medium: Television
Program: The Lively Arts
Broadcast Date: Nov. 28, 1961
Guest(s): Lawren Harris
Host: Henry Comor
Interviewer: Percy Saltzman
Duration: 21:49

Did You know?

• Lawren S. Harris was born in Brantford, Ont. in 1885. At age 19 he left for Europe, studying art in Berlin and travelling to other parts of Europe and the Middle East.

• In 1916 Harris enlisted and became a lieutenant with the 10th Royal Grenadiers. Two years later he submitted his resignation for health reasons and, according to author Dennis Reid, had a near breakdown shortly after that.

• Harris was alone among the Group in that he didn't need to work for a living: his family owned the Massey-Harris tractor company. This enabled him to build Toronto's Studio Building with Dr. James McCallum in 1913.

• Some of Harris's earliest paintings were of Toronto street scenes and houses in the Ward, an inner-city immigrant neighbourhood southeast of the University of Toronto.

• In 1918 Harris organized the first of many sketching trips by boxcar to the Algoma region of northern Ontario, near Sault Ste. Marie. He arranged for the painters to inhabit a boxcar and caboose which were then pulled from Toronto on the Canadian Pacific rail line. Once they were dropped off in Algoma, they could be picked up by any passing freight train and moved to another rail siding for new sketching opportunities.

• Harris later travelled regularly to Lake Superior and visited the Rockies often. In 1930 he joined A.Y. Jackson and his friend Dr. Frederick Banting (who, seven years before, had won the Nobel Prize for discovering insulin) on their annual sketching trip to the Arctic. There he made the sketches for Baffin Island, a canvas that in 2001 would earn $2.2 million, then the highest price ever paid for a Group of Seven painting.

• British Columbia painter Emily Carr was a contemporary of the Group of Seven. She met Lawren Harris and other members of the Group in 1927 when the National Gallery in Ottawa exhibited 26 of her paintings in a show of West Coast art. According to the National Library of Canada, her new friendship with Harris inspired her to approach her painting with a renewed focus.

• By about 1934 Harris's work was influenced by his embrace of theosophy -- a spiritual philosophy of personal awareness and the unity of everything. His paintings became abstract, using more geometrical shapes and focusing on line and colour.

• Besides being a painter, Harris was accomplished in ceramics and published a book of poetry in 1922.

• Harris painted until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. He and his wife Bess are buried in the cemetery at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.


The Group of Seven: Painters in the Wilderness more