The weaknesses of Lawren Harris’s art — a tendency to favor stylization and stasis over the grit and flux of reality, and spiritual rhetoric over things in themselves — can be guessed at by looking at reproductions of his work. His great strengths cannot.
To grasp these — and they are manifold — you have to stand directly in front of his paintings, which you can do in a beautiful show, “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris,” in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The show, which takes its suggestive title from the first of a series of radio documentaries about the North, collectively titled “The Solitude Trilogy,” produced by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, quietly overturns initial impressions. You come to see that not only is there more reality in Harris’s paintings than reproductions imply, but also more art: more subtlety, more invention, and quite literally more color.
It’s safe to say that Harris, Canada’s most widely acclaimed 20th-century painter, is underrated outside his home country. But just how guilty should Americans feel about this?
I ask as an Australian. Not, in other words, as a neutral bystander, but as someone who instinctively empathizes with parochial art lovers who feel permanently aggrieved by foreign indifference to their favorite works.
Australia, like Canada, boasts several modern landscape painters — Fred Williams, Sidney Nolan, and Arthur Boyd — who are household names there, just as the members of the “Group of Seven” (the landscape school of which Harris was a founder) are in Canada. Their paintings fill the country’s museums and fetch high process at auction.
Does their work have any currency outside Australia? Almost exactly none. Someone, surely, must be to blame.
But could the fault lie with Australians — or, in Harris’s case, with Canadians?
It’s worth asking. As many will already know, the Lawren Harris exhibition was organized by the American comedian, musician, writer, and actor Steve Martin. Working with Cynthia Burlingham, the deputy director of Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and Andrew Hunter, curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Martin crisscrossed Canada and came up with a show that, in all probability, no Canadian museum would ever dare to put on.
That’s because when artists achieve national hero status, the great art institutions in their home country feel duty-bound to be interested in everything about them: the good, the bad, and the mediocre. The result is invariably fatal.
Martin’s show, thank God, is different. It dares to present Harris only at his best, ruthlessly shorn of the weaker work that preceded and followed the period — roughly 1922-1930 — that saw him break through into a truly original idiom.
The result is revelatory, and gives Harris the best chance he has probably ever had of extending his reputation significantly beyond Canada.
A knowledgeable fan not only of Harris but of many of his North American peers, Martin has also selected American works from the MFA’s collection, by Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, for a first-rate display in an adjacent gallery.
But the Harris exhibition is the main attraction, and it kicks off with a beautiful rendering of Pic Island, a small, hilly protuberance just off the north shore of Lake Superior, which Harris began exploring in the 1920s.
There’s nothing realistic about Harris’s treatment. His image is smooth, soft, and rounded, where the island itself (going by photographs, anyway) is rocky, jagged, and unkempt. But there is genius in his treatment of form, color, and light.
The dark, violet band of the shoreline, arching upwards at the corners, echoes the curving band of sky between the horizon and the undulant band of clouds. Those clouds cast shadows on the icy waters. The shape of the gilded patch of light-reflecting water in the foreground mirrors the dark, grapey mass of the island itself.
The whole thing is symphonic in its contrasts and harmonies, yet incredibly intimate in effect. Islands in art almost always have a proud, inviolate quality; here, Harris has combined that feeling with a seductive tenderness, a sirenlike invitation to partake of such solitude.
If he is peddling a kind of spiritual rhetoric — and he is; the previous year, Harris had discovered Theosophy, the influential esoteric cult promoted by Madame Blavatsky that posited, among other somewhat less fanciful notions, a lost continent sunk beneath an astral plane at the North Pole — it is rhetoric whispered directly into your ear.
A slightly earlier picture, “Above Lake Superior,” is just as powerful. It shows a mountain under a sky striated by receding bands of cloud, all of this observed through five smooth, vertical tree trunks emerging from snowy ground. Four of the dead trunks are cropped by the painting’s upper edge. Beneficent light hits them from the left, igniting unexpected textures in the snow covering a fallen trunk at their feet.
Here again, subtle rhymes in scale, form and color — between, for instance, the downward arch of the mountain and the smaller upward arcs of the forking branches — do much to enliven the picture, opening it up. The stylization exists in perfect equipoise with the scene’s realism — the sense that, even if Harris did return to his studio and artfully distill what he had seen, he had nevertheless observed this particular mountain through those particular dead trees at a particular time of day.
That sense of concrete connection disappears from some (but only some) of Harris’s later Arctic pictures, which he made after traveling there with his friend and fellow painter A.Y. Jackson over two months in 1930.
“Mountain Forms” and “Mt. Lefroy” are huge, intentionally dramatic paintings, and they’re fun to look at. But their ascending arsenals of tube-like forms piercing rippling skies put me in mind of massive pipe organs in kitschy cathedrals, played after a stirring sermon and with all the stops out.
In both paintings, Harris’s extraordinarily subtle way with color and light is still in evidence. But the vision seems grandiloquent and god-bothering to me, rather than genuinely sublime. (Then again, I’ve never traveled to the Arctic.)
The works I preferred tended to be smaller, more in thrall to the sticky textures of actual observation, the resistance of reality. The tiny “In Buchanan Bay, Ellesmere Island,” for instance, which shows small icebergs reflected in water, is a wonder. Likewise “Lake Harbor, South Shore, Baffin Island, Morning.”
“Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains” is a classic Harris hybrid of dreamscape and reality — the end product of a series of experiments and a long process of simplification. It works so well for one reason: the color.
The rippling turquoise of the foreground glacier zings against the deep, cold blue of the sky. Against both these colors, the warm, tawny brown of the peak itself, partially covered in bright, inviting white, feels weirdly benevolent.
“Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains” is typical of the drive toward abstraction that characterized so much early 20th-century art — and particularly treatments of nature and landscape. It expresses a late Romantic conviction that the visible world is but one manifestation (and for the most part, an unhelpfully messy one) of a hidden order.
Where was that order hidden? Well, it varied. Possibly, in the so-called “root races” and lost continents posited by Madame Blavatsky, or possibly not. But in any case, in deep structures suggested by geology, the cosmos, and, not least, the mysteries of the mind.
Science and mathematics had pointed the way, breaking apart earlier assumptions. But for artists like Harris, science was ultimately too literal, too bound by empiricism. It was insufficiently intuitive. The early 20th-century drive toward abstraction was an attempt to reach beyond the visible world, to rescue it from fragmentation, partiality, and dislocation, to restore a kind of wholeness.
The way to do this, pictorially, was to rid the visible world of incidentals and contingencies, to distill and distill again. We see this drive not only in Harris’s work, but in the work of many of his North American peers, as Martin’s judicious selection in the adjacent gallery reminds us.
The display includes one gorgeous Harris — “Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior” — as well as a superb Georgia O’Keeffe, an early Marsden Hartley, and no fewer than seven glorious Arthur Doves.
It’s a treat, and a great way to contextualize Harris’s stirring achievement.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris
At: Museum of Fine Arts, through June 12. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.