AGO heads up north

What do painters, actors, and art curators have in common?

Remarkably, not much. This is why American actor Steve Martin astonished Toronto art-lovers by agreeing to co-curate over 60 works by Lawren Harris (1885-1970), the genius mind behind the Art Gallery of Ontario’s newest exhibition, The Idea of North.

The exhibition, which hails from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, celebrates the depth of the positive forces that emerge from the Canadian North. However, the “idea” aspect in the title prompts art-goers to give the exhibition a second look in order to connect with Harris’ sense of nature.

Harris, the Group of Seven’s leading man, rejected the idea of rapid industrialization in Toronto. He was quick to believe that big cities were prone to inciting turmoil and social upheaval. Harris concluded that huge, sprawling metropolises like Toronto were detrimental to Canadian identity.

The North was undeniably his salvation. However, Harris didn’t focus on a single element of northern landscapes. Rather, he conveyed the allure of multiple locations throughout the course of his excursions, morphing these moments into a single northern fantasy—one he wished would abolish the hardships of the city.

As The Idea of North suggests, Harris found serenity in bringing natural settings to life through art, which falls into accordance with the Group of Seven’s fundamental principles. Harris was certain that Canada’s best side wasn’t shown through the city’s industrialist lifestyle. Harris’ unique style and principled beliefs inspired Martin to collaborate on the exhibition with fellow curators Andrew Hunter, Fredrick S. Earton, and the Hammer Museum’s Cynthia Burlingham.

Midway through The Idea of North, a screen is seen hanging on the wall. In the recorded viewing, the voices of Martin, Hunter, Earton, and Burlingham explain their initial inspirations and ideas that brought forth the success of their co-curated exhibition. Martin went into depth about his love for Canadian art and praised the many trips he took to the “Great White North.”

During Martin’s journeys, he became mesmerized with Harris. His work prompted Martin to delve into an aspect of art he was sheltered from during his American upbringing. With the knowledge that Harris pioneered the artistic conceptualization of the Canadian Arctic at the turn of the 20th century, Martin felt regret towards the painter’s lack of popularity in the United States. Harris ultimately propelled Martin deep into a pool of Canadian art he had yet to discover.

Due to his financial privileges, Harris’ earlier work allowed him to contrast his wealthy upbringing to the one in The Ward, one of Toronto’s impoverished regions at the time. Presently, the site of The Ward is located in the heart of Toronto, near City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. Recognizing the bleak future in the overcrowded slum run by Eastern-European immigrants, Harris made a dramatic switch from painting cities to natural landscapes, allowing us to appreciate the reality of realist art and fantasy-north. The latter notably dulls Harris’ early images of poverty-stricken areas.

Perhaps Harris’ “idea” of northern Canada is simplistic. Nevertheless, the North for Harris is not snow, trees, mountains, or birds. It’s a place of self-reassurance. The North caters to the idea that city-goers must gravitate towards an environment that alienates them from their preconceptions, because this is a place where true insight occurs.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, runs until September 18 at the AGO.

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