If I recall correctly, I was 13 when I first became acquainted with the paintings of the Group of Seven – that was some 70 years ago. I learned a great deal about painting the Ontario landscape by copying reproductions of their work in oils on pieces of wallboard that my dad had given a coat of white primer house paint. The fresh, bold images that these artists brought back from their painting excursions in the natural environment spoke to me then as they do now, on some deep level of my awareness.
As with most innovators in the fields of creative endeavour, their departures from earlier aesthetic conventions were not readily recognized for the significance they ultimately represented. However, today they are legend in the land of their aspirations. It always takes a discerning few to bring to the many, new ways of interpreting the dynamic world we live in.
Unlike so much of European painting since the Renaissance, heavily peopled as it was in the renderings of mythic, religious, genre, and portraits, the Group of Seven seldom included the human figure in their work. It was all about trees, the precambrian shield, water, and big skies, painted in a fusion of impressionist and fauve-like ways of working. Looking back on the results of their exhilarating forays into some of Canada’s wild places, they represent in essence a refreshing return to humanity’s long sojourn in the natural surround, a swim in primordial waters as it were. Viewed from within the context of the shift in cultural values away from the modern era to the advent of postmodernism, their work suggests a remembering of origins “In the womb of nature …” Klee. A necessary step in the process of renewal.
While his companions kept to a more naturalistic form of painterly expression, Lawren Harris was inclined to take this process of getting in touch with origins to another level in his search for spiritual authenticity. He was also a good organizer, independently wealthy, and the prime mover in the formation of the Group. Art for him was: “A realm of life between our mundane world and the world of the spirit.”
In his alertness to clues that would put him in touch with ever deeper levels of transpersonal significance, Harris found compelling leads in the writing and art of Vasily Kandinsky. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian were attracted to the philosophy and metaphysical ideas contained in Theosophy. This is the name of a movement founded in the 19th century by Madame Blavatsky and others. It is based on the Vedas, the Shastras, and the Puranas, the ancient sacred scriptures of India. Here we find another example of the wisdom teachings of the East spreading to the West.
The influences that Harris found to be so compelling in this movement can be discerned in the soaring, monumental, snow-covered mountains rising out of primordial arctic landscapes and giving expression in celestial skies – suggestive of metaphorical ascensions to lofty mystical domains. Such was his inspiration in translating objective reality, that he felt free to alter what he saw in accordance with his subjective interior vision.
In his last period, Harris abandoned all vestiges of the world of objective reality in favour of a non-objective form of expression. Gone the cityscapes, gone the landscapes, enter abstraction. Following Kandinsky’s lead, he turned to painting primary pictorial relationships in flat shape and line, simple colour and tone in geometric formal constructions. While Kandinsky’s work has an organic cast in the play of its various parts, Harris’s work more closely resembles that of Mondrian’s direction in painting in that there is an inorganic, crystalline, ‘hard-edge’ character to their visual art. And finally, Harris’s search for a detached, mystical form of expression, lead him in a minimalist direction where he felt that it was unimportant to sign his work.
This deconstruction of the world of visual and tactile encounters in favour of reductive primary relationships in image making, is yet another example of the 20th century “… inward-turning descent and deconstruction of the self …” Tarnas. What is called for here is is not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’. The outer and inner directed approaches to creative expression require an equilibrium in the recognition of the values that each can provide.