Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Lawren Harris and Theosophy – Part One

Kathleen F. Hall - Canada

"The power of beauty at work in man, as the artist has always known, is severe and exacting, and once invoked, will never leave him alone, until he brings his work and life into some semblance of harmony with its spirit" (Harris, "Theosophy and Art").

Lawren Stewart Harris is well-known as a Canadian landscape painter and the founder of the Group of Seven. He was also a Theosophist whose art was highly influenced by his spirituality. Over the course of his career, Harris engaged in seeking spiritual knowledge, which in turn caused his work to evolve and change from an objective interpretation of the Canadian landscape to a non-objective representation of the spiritual.

Harris was born October 23, 1885 in Brantford, Ontario, but as a youth moved to Toronto. While a young college student attending University College, the University of Toronto, he was recognized for his artistic ability and was encouraged to study art in Europe. Consequently, in 1904 he attended art school in Berlin. In Europe, Harris had three important encounters that were to have a great influence on his life and art. One was an exhibit of nineteenth-century German art, including works by Caspar David Friedrich, whose vast open landscapes provoked a heightened spiritual sensibility. Another was meeting Paul Thiem, a poet, philosopher, Theosophist, and regionalist painter, who quite possibly introduced him to a Theosophical art exhibit in Munich at this time (Adamson). The third was the opportunity to go on hiking and sketching trips into the mountains. These three events marked a course for the direction that Harris’s life would follow thereafter.

In 1908, Harris returned to Toronto and began going on sketching and painting trips into the Canadian wilderness. He also became a member of the Arts and Letters Club, where he developed a friendship with Roy Mitchell, a Theosophist. Mitchell, then secretary of the Toronto Theosophical Society, introduced Harris to the writings of Madam Blavatsky and eastern mysticism. Over the next few years Harris worked on his paintings and studied Theosophical and other spiritual writings.

In 1916, Harris enlisted in the army, following his brother Howard, who had enlisted a year earlier. During the next two years, Harris struggled with army life and suffered the deaths of his close friend, Tom Thomson (one of the original members of the Group of Seven), and of his brother, who had been killed in action. These losses caused Harris to suffer a nervous breakdown, which took him more than a year to recover from. During his recovery period, Harris immersed himself in painting, sketching trips into the mountains, and readings on spirituality and mysticism. Among the works he read were the Upanishads and books by Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge. He also read P. D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum and Richard Burke’s Cosmic Consciousness (which Ouspensky quoted). Harris thought that these two books belonged together because they were “illumined by the light of a radiant understanding . . . [and] here at last we have given us a reasoned, spiritual basis for our conviction that art is the beginning of wisdom into the realm of eternal life” (Adamson, 135-6). These books made a great impression on him and most likely propelled the shift in his artwork that would soon manifest.

Over the next few years, Harris began to form friendships and alliances with other Toronto-area landscape painters (mostly through the Arts and Letters Club) who were to be members of the Group of Seven. Harris organized their first exhibit in 1920, as a result of which the group became known. Its members following the death of Tom Thomson included Harris, J. E. H. McDonald, Arthur Lismer, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston (who was later replaced by A. J. Casson), Frederick Varley, and Franklin Carmichael. The group formed a strong alliance as the most important painters in Canada. Many of them were influenced by Theosophical concepts, most likely from their discussions with Lawren Harris and other members of the Arts and Letters Club, such as Roy Mitchell. Harris, along with Arthur Lismer, joined the Toronto Theosophical Society in 1923.

Over the course of the next three years, Harris began to experience a spiritual awakening that would soon be reflected in the evolution of his work. His paintings of the Canadian landscape, which began as representational, began to advance through an ever-abstracting process that manifested the essence of the divine in the purity of the vast Canadian north. The “power of beauty” was invoked in Harris, and it would never leave him.

In tracing Harris’ spiritual development through his art, we can track his evolution through his changing style. His early work of 1910-8 included both urban cityscapes and rural landscapes (Hunter). Harris's urban scenes depicted houses from Toronto and elsewhere and were concerned with poverty and the lives of immigrant Canadians. He pondered the human condition as portrayed through the houses he painted, raising the question of how people reacted to lives of destitution, despair, and gloomy hopelessness. A painting titled Top of the Hill (1909-11) depicts the desolation of a stark, cold house as also do others, such as Little House, The Gas Works, and Morning. Another, titled In the Ward is of a poor, immigrant area of Toronto with dishevelled houses, but one house in particular is describes in a poem Harris wrote about it:

In a part of the city that is ever shrouded in sooty smoke,
and amid huge, hard buildings, hides a gloomy house of
broken grey rough-cast, like a sickly sin in a callous soul.

Streams of wires run by it wailing in the murky wind.
Two half-dead chestnut trees, black and broken, stand
wearily before it, subdued by a bare rigid telephone pole.

The windows are bleary with grime, and bulging, filthy
rags plug the broken panes.

Torn blinds of cold judas green chill whatever light
sifts through the smoky air.

Dirty shutters sag this way and that like dancers
suddenly stopped in an aimless movement.

But the street door smiles, and even laughs, when the
hazy sunlight falls on it-

Someone had painted it a bright gay red. (Betts, 5)


In the Ward (1920)

In contrast, the landscapes he painted at this time were beautiful scenes of colour, and a lyrical sense of beauty permeated them. They were devoid of human subjects and depicted a bright, decorative, colourful world unlike his dreary, grey, urban scenes. Spruce and Snow, Winter Morning, and Winter Sunrise depict this style. In these paintings, Harris’s love and appreciation for the Canadian landscape begin to emerge.

Winter Sunrise (1913)

From 1920 onward, Lawren Harris was mainly concerned with painting the Canadian landscape. These scenes, which began as colourful, lyrical interpretations, followed a process of abstraction as Harris’s spirituality deepened. Harris’s painting Above Lake Superior was a pivotal work marking a new direction in his work:

"A lofty transcendent image of the wilderness, it is released from the bonds of time and space. Lonely, remote and austere in tone, the work is a distillation of Harris’s experience and its pervasive peacefulness is the result of a new and powerful spiritual conviction that animates all his future creations – both representational and non-objective." (Adamson, 124)

Hector Charlesworth, a critic for the Saturday Night Magazine, and Fred Housser, a Theosophist and long time friend of Harris’s, both likened Above Lake Superior, to the mystical qualities found in the paintings of William Blake (Adamson).

Above Lake Superior (1922)

Several other paintings done in this period, including From the North Shore, Lake Superior (1923), North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), and Lake and Mountains (1927-8), all exhibit this sense of mystical vision.

From The North Shore, Lake Superior (1923)

North Shore, Lake Superior (1926)

Lake and Mountains (1927-8)

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