The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

Why Steve Martin fell in love with Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris

The talented Steve Martin is much more than a brilliant comedian — he's an actor, producer, novelist, essayist, banjo-player...and art connoisseur. He has curated a new exhibition of the paintings of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He takes Michael Enright on a tour of his favourite paintings, to explain what he loves about them, and why it's OK that they all look the same.
Steve Martin was Michael's guide for a tour of a new exhibition of Harris's work at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Lawren Harris's stark and haunting renderings of Canada's north are unlike any landscapes by the other Group of Seven artists. His paintings have captivated generations of Canadians — as well as American actor, writer and comedian Steve Martin. 

Steve Martin felt as if he had discovered Lawren Harris, when he came across his paintings more than 20 years ago. Since then, he has been one of the greatest champions for Harris's artwork in the United States.

In Harris, you really feel exalted. You feel like you're alone in nature. You're communing with nature, you're observing the majesty of the mountains, and you don't feel alone or depressed.- Steve Martin 

Now, a Harris exhibit co-curated by Martin has come to Canada. "The Idea of North" opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Canada Day. Michael Enright got a tour of the exhibit from Steve Martin shortly before it opened. 

North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, purchased 1930. Copyright Family of Lawren S. Harris. (National Gallery of Canada)

North Shore, Lake Superior

Steve Martin: "This painting is very dramatic. There's a lone dead tree, almost dead centre...which is usually something artists would not do. But somehow it works. Here's a real example of nothing living — you have a dead tree — and yet in the background you have these incredible bursts of sun rays, and the light reflecting on the water. And it's optimistic's almost like a phoenix rising." (Note: You can hear Michael and Mr. Martin discuss this painting at about 7:59 in the audio file above.)

Pic Island by Lawren Harris (1924) is part of the AGO exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, curated by comedian Steve Martin. On display at the AGO from July 2 to Sept. 11, 2016. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift of Colonel R.S. McLaughin. (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)

Pic Island

Steve Martin: "This Pic Island picture...[is] very serene. So you have these bombastic paintings of glory, and then you have this incredible serenity of calmness and colour. And range of colour, by the way — because you tend to think of Harris in terms of blue and white, and here you can see, no, there's purple, there's yellow." (11:13)

Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains. 1930. Oil on canvas. Hart House Permanent Collection, University of Toronto. Purchased by the Art Committee with income from the Harold and Murray Wrong Memorial Fund, 1946. (Lawren Harris)

Isolation Peak

Steve Martin: "He made up this place. There is no mountain called Isolation Peak, so he gave this a poetic name...This picture has such atmosphere. You really feel that there's an atmosphere around the image of the mountain, there's atmosphere around the snow. This is a good example of the rippling, vibrating landscape — I don't think snow falls in grooves...You feel the containment of the mountain, and its energy, at the same time." (12:50)

Lake Superior. Circa 1924. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto, 1970. (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)

Lake Superior

Steve Martin: "It is [a lonely vista], but at the same time, quite beautiful. If you were there...I don't think you'd feel, I'm in a forlorn place...but he had the wisdom not to paint it beautifully, because that gets very corny very fast. 

If it were, in this case, glorious and covered with leaves and happy waves and happy ducks, you know, it's a very dead image — oh, I've seen that in children's books." (14:28)

Click the button above to hear Michael's tour of the Lawren Harris exhibit co-curated by Steve Martin.