Steve Martin curates Lawren Harris exhibit at the AGO
Comedian is so passionate about the Group of Seven icon he agreed to curate a show
Comedian Steve Martin has been an art lover and collector of fine art for decades. Now he's co-curator of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, featuring more than 30 major paintings by the revered Canadian painter and co-founder of the Group of Seven.
"I always thought it was going to be a big hit," Martin said of the exhibition.
"I've always felt, just wait 'till they see these paintings all in one room."
Canada through an American lens
Group of Seven paintings are front and centre in the hearts and minds of Canadians for their representation of the country's rugged northern landscape and for the sense of national identity they imbue.
But the showing at the Hammer Museum marked the first major exhibition of Harris works in the United States. That show included some of his most significant paintings.
As Martin tells it, "I do own a couple of small panels that I bought through the years that I just really like. In fact, that's how this whole thing got started. I had a small panel hanging in our house and Annie Philbin was over, and she said, 'Who's that?' And I said 'Don't get me started,' and here we are."
'I thought I discovered him'
Martin finally agreed to take on the project, hoping to make Harris as famous in the U.S. as the Canadian icon is at home.
"I thought I discovered him, then I realized Canada knows all about him," Martin told CBC's Wendy Mesley in an exclusive television interview earlier this month.
"I felt a little foolish. I thought he was unknown."
The fact that few Americans seemed aware of Harris's work, while Martin had adored him for decades, finally spurred the comedian on to take on the job as curator.
Over a period of several years, Martin travelled across Canada to choose the right pieces for his exhibition.
Abstract idealized images of Canada
Martin said he first saw Canada's North when he went to the Yukon on a film shoot. There, the landscape reminded him of a Harris painting.
"I was helicoptered to the location and would fly through these mountains. I thought: `This is Lawren Harris,'" he told Mesley.
"Oftentimes, you know, a painter will paint a landscape and you think, 'That's not really what it looks like.' And then when you actually go see the landscape, you go, 'Oh, I see. He actually did paint it exactly like it is.'"
While the Hammer Museum's version of the show provided an initial introduction to Harris's masterworks for an American audience, in Boston, his paintings were shown alongside American abstract artists.
"In Boston, we were able to bring Harris together with the important early American artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley," Hunter said during Tuesday's chat.
"And the work really held up, really strongly."
Martin also discussed the progression of Harris's oeuvre from realism to abstractionism over time.
"If you look at Harris's work you will see paintings of specific places. He's looking at the scene and painting it or maybe doing a drawing and taking it back to the studio. But then later, you see formal pictures like Isolation Peak, which are non-existent places that he's composing. And then you see a painting like the Imperial Oil picture and it's just theory," Martin said.
"It's like the theory of a mountain … and that's where the Idea of North comes from."
Those sparse, austere, empty northern landscapes have helped shape Canada's sense of identity, even as the majority of Canadians today live in cities far to the south.
Updated for Canadian audiences
Harris's "bold vision of the North, the one that so many people love, really comes out of this place," according to the AGO's Hunter.
The expanded exhibition in Toronto also includes historical work of several photographers, Harris contemporaries who also documented the Ward in Toronto in the early 1900s.
"It was a tough, emerging modern city that was really hard on working people and really hard on newcomers," Hunter said.
"Harris dealt with that in his work. He wrote about it in his poetry. He spoke quite openly about being troubled by the human condition that he saw.
The Toronto exhibition also features work by several contemporary Canadian artists, including four commissions, that further explore the idea of the Canadian identity and landscape.
Landscape on film
The exhibition's prologue and epilogue serve partly as a critique of Harris, but also a critique of Canada and the stories that we've consistently told, said Hunter.
"I think the challenge for Harris is that in choosing that path for very particular reasons, it also opens him to criticism for, in a sense, that kind of cleansing or erasure that happens in his work [and] can also be seen as an ignoring of a wider culture."
Idealized vision of Canada
Hunter offers a final perspective on the enduring contribution Harris made in shaping our idea of Canada.
"Harris was very successful in the teens and 20s in supporting an argument for a Canadian art, a very nationalist perspective," he said.
Watch Wendy Mesley's full interview with Steve Martin on The National on Thursday June 30 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. ET on CBC Television (10:30 NT) or online at CBC.ca/thenational.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on display at the AGO July 1 to Sept. 18.