Christopher Hume: Why does Steve Martin have to tell us to celebrate Lawren Harris?

By Christopher Hume - Published on June 22, 2016
Actor Steve Martin stands next to Lawren Harris’s ‘Mountain Forms’ at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, March 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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He likes us. He really likes us.

Only in Canada, a Sally Fields kind of country, would it matter that an American — make that an American celebrity — had discovered one of our own. Yet, that’s what’s happening. True, Lawren Harris, painter and a founder of the Group of Seven, died nearly half a century ago. But now that movie star and comedian Steve Martin has declared his admiration for the artist, even buying some of his works, everything has changed.

The painter, born in Brantford in 1885, is sexy now. Canadian museum curators, those long-ignored toilers of the vaults, are scrambling to drag out dust-covered Harris canvases and sketches, donated eons ago by long-departed Rosedale matrons, and hang them for all to see.

Harris’ canvases have those same browbeaten curators puffing out their chests and looking forward to hobnobbing with their new best friend and fellow Canadian art connoisseur, Mr. Steve Martin.

Barbara Fischer, executive director and chief curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto Art Centre, speaks for many of her fellow travellers: “We are thrilled for the recognition of Lawren Harris in the United States, and for someone of the stature and visibility of Steve Martin to take such interest in his work. It is our pleasure to draw from one of the strengths of the Hart House collection and to participate as lenders to such a significant exhibition.”

The Idea of North, the “significant exhibition” to which Fischer referred, opens July 1 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Organized by Martin – with help from the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, Andrew Hunter, and deputy director of curatorial affairs at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, Cynthia Burlingham – the show reprises the usual Harris depictions of lonely mountains, noble tree stumps and stark Arctic landscapes. Standard Canadiana, for sure, but refreshed by its newest fan and collector.

“I believe in this work,” Martin told the Toronto Star last year. “It’s time for Harris to sit where he belongs.”

Presumably that would be in the U.S., not to mention a wall in Martin’s living room.

Well, thank you, Steve. Finally, the recognition Harris deserves. For those of us who live here, where the North is less an idea than an inconvenient truth, Harris and the Group of Seven have been around so long they are a designated cultural cliché. Though members of the Group — or as Martin cutely calls them, The Seven — had done their most important cultural pioneering before they joined together in 1920, they remain the beginning and end of Canadian art for many. Even now, Canada’s notoriously parsimonious art collectors are willing to reach deeper into their pockets for Harris than just about any other Canadian artist. We’re not just conservative in our tastes: we’re prehistoric.

This is largely why, in the era Before Steve (B.S.), Canadian curators yawned at the mere mention of the Group. Been there; done that. Seen the show. The very notion of Canadian cultural nationalism so fundamental to Harris, along with the belief that this is a country defined by its (now degraded) landscape, has gone the way of quill pens and horse-drawn carriages.

Still, we are defiantly a colony, even if the empire we look to now is the U.S. and not Great Britain. We continue to inhabit the fringes far from the centre of imperial power. Even Canada’s stars — and more importantly, its celebrities — are theirs. They grace us with their presence whenever they visit.

Harris may have painted the pictures on display at the AGO, but the star of this show is Steve Martin, and his presence is enough to turn even the most disgruntled curator into a fan, only too happy to drag out all those tiresome tropes about the essential — no, mystical — connection between us Canucks and the wide open spaces of the Great White North.

But as we know only too well, the Algonquin Park so beloved by The Seven is being trampled underfoot by tourists, and the Arctic is melting. Like so much about the Harris and the Group, our love of the landscape is largely a myth, albeit one Canadians like and need to believe in. If only it weren’t so hard to get to.

More so than landscape, what Canadians really love is celebrity, which can turn even a banjo-playing dilettante like Steve Martin into an art expert.

Canada’s tragedy has little to do with its landscape or its historical indifference to itself, its art and culture. Its tragedy lies in its inability to create its own celebrities. From Drake and Justin Bieber to the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds), Canadians go south to be anointed by what Joni Mitchell called “the star-maker machinery.” After that they may come home if they choose, but that can be risky. When Canada’s most famous second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, William Ronald, returned to Toronto after becoming a New York art star in the 1950s, he never again reached the same heights.

After all, who would want to live here, unknown, when he could be a celebrity in the Big Apple? Even Harris, who left for the U.S. in 1934, only returned after the outbreak of the Second World War, which prompted Ottawa to restrict money transfers out of Canada. As an heir to his family’s portion of the Massey-Harris millions, that meant a lot to the wealthy painter.

By then, of course, he had long since abandoned landscape in his work for a highly idiosyncratic and rather bizarre form of abstraction inspired by theosophy, a then-fashionable occultist movement. Non-figurative work occupied Harris for the rest of his life. But that hasn’t caught Steve’s eye, so there’s little interest in it. The Idea of North addresses those things that matter most to Martin, even if not us Canadians: mountains, trees and snow — lots of snow.   

Award-winning journalist Christopher Hume was the Toronto Star’s art critic during the 1980s and ‘90s.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario from July 1 to September 18. 

Watch Where The Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris:

 

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