Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Lawren Harris and Theosophy – Part two

Kathleen F. Hall – Canada

[Part 1 of this article traced the life and work of the major Canadian artist Lawren Harris from socially conscious urban cityscapes through lyrical landscapes to transcendent, mystical interpretations of the land. This part examines Theosophical influences that led Harris to abstraction in a process that mirrors his own evolution into spiritual realization.]

The influence of the spiritual writings and paintings of Kandinsky can also been seen in Harris’s work. Harris read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and understood Kandinsky’s references to Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant’s book Thought-Forms, which Harris had read as well (Adamson). That book identifies colours with symbolic meanings based on states of consciousness that descend from spirit to matter: yellows, higher intelligence; blue, spirituality; and pale azure, union with the divine. Thought-Forms describes a radiating vibration that people emit when formulating a thought, with which colours combine to create a distinct form visible to clairvoyants. Adamson (p. 133) quotes from Thought-Forms to describe how these forms relate to art:

"In many respects, a work of art was a materialized thought-form of the artist, containing a spiritual significance and adhering to the three principles underlying all thought forms: 1. Quality of thought determines color. 2. Nature of thought determines form. 3. Definiteness of thought determines clearness of outline."

These pictures are perhaps the beginning indications of Harris’s concern with depicting Theosophical concepts of spirituality in his work, such as those described in Thought-Forms. Contrasts of strong, warm light revealing richly curved forms and repeated shapes are now becoming more evident. There is also a turn toward an organizing of the forms into geometric structuring as in Icebergs, Davis Strait (1930). Harris was perhaps seeking a simpler, more definitive spiritual interpretation in his paintings that has some similarities to the work of both Kandinsky and Mondrian (who was also a Theosophist).

Ice Bergs, Davis Strait (1930)

The next four years saw many changes in Harris's life, though his paintings seemed to be more at a standstill. It was not until 1934 that we see another major shift in his work. Untitled (LSH 26) (1934), is a distinctly abstract piece that appears to lay the ground for yet another new direction in Harris’s painting, perhaps the breakthrough that began the course in painting he would follow thereafter. Harris described his reason for moving to abstraction in his work:

"For myself every abstraction I paint has its source in an idea. This idea, whatever it may be, cannot be put into words and at the beginning of the painting is rarely clear. It becomes clear and objective throughout the process or evolution of the painting. The result is an epitome of a long subjective experience which cannot be explained. It can only be experienced and then it should elucidate itself through the language or idiom of the painting" (Lawren Harris: Paintings 1910-1948).

Untitled: LSH 26 (1934) Hunter, p. 48

In the years preceding 1934, Harris was struggling both personally and professionally. He was on the cusp of leaving behind one world and stepping into another. His wife Beatrix did not embrace his spiritual pursuits, and that caused the breakup of his marriage. He divorced her in 1934 and married Bess Housser, who had divorced her husband and Harris’s friend, Fred Housser, at the same time. Bess was both a Theosophist and an artist and had been Harris's long-time friend and confidant. The artistic community in Toronto did not receive this realignment well. So Harris moved to the United States for several years, first to New Hampshire as an unpaid artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, then to Santa Fe, New Mexico, joining the Transcendental Painting Group.

Harris remained in the United States from 1934 to 1940. During that time his work was entirely concerned with abstraction. Continuing to study and follow Kandinsky’s The Spiritual in Art and perhaps influenced by his wife, Bess, who had studied Dynamic Symmetry (a design system involving natural proportions), Harris’s work began to show an increasing simplification of form, an evolution toward cosmic geometry, and a heightened sense of mysticism and transformation.  

Abstraction No.3 (1934-7) Hunter, p. 50

Abstract No. 95 (1937) Hunter, p. 58

Composition No. 1 (1940) Hunter, p. 64

Abstract No. 20 (1942)

Harris was now concerned with painting only the higher realms, leaving behind the lower, physical world. Harris describes this refocus in a piece he wrote titled "Theosophy and Art." There he specifies four levels or stages of self: (1) the outward waking life of the physical world, (2) the middle world of dream, the interspace between heaven and earth, (3) the level of pure detachment from both the physical and the dream world, which is bliss, and (4) and the final stage that brings the other three stages together into “the self’s Oneness” (Hunter).

The progress of Harris’s spirituality is manifested in his work. His early paintings described the urban and rural physical worlds. From the Shore of Lake Superior and others of that period have a dreamlike quality as portrayed through their ethereal colours and surreal forms. Then we see a break from all recognizable aspects of the physical world in Untitled (LSH 26). His last works, just prior to his death, seem to shift beyond all earthly knowing into a realm that only the enlightened can describe.


Northern Image (1953-4) Hunter, p. 69


Atma Buddhi Manas (1962) Hunter, p. 71

Lawren Stewart Harris died on January 29, 1970, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He left behind not only a legacy as one of Canada’s most important artists but also a map of his spiritual journey. It charts a course that defines visually what would be impossible to describe literally.
"Theosophists know that occultism, which is truth put into practice, is an immense, almost a devastating power, requiring a great care, a care involving the use, the living, adjusting, creative balance of all the faculties, if a man is to avoid innumerable pitfalls, or too great a despondency. And the creative individual in the arts also knows that beauty at work in the soul is likewise an immense power, a power that will ultimately stir the entire man into life and disclose tendencies and temptations he was unaware of, and that this needs a great care, a readjustment of his whole makeup if he is to achieve a new and wider balance of vision. So that the theosophist and the creative artist stand here on somewhat common ground, sharing a similar high vision, involved in the same struggle, and using the same faculties, though they may give these different names. They both approach the unity of life, and inspired by that vision they have both to create their own way, through whatever vicissitudes towards ultimate truth and beauty." (Harris, "Theosophy and Art."  

Untitled Abstraction “K” (1964) Hunter, p. 72


Adamson, Jeremy. Lawren S. Harris: Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes, 1906-1930. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1978.
Betts, Gregory, ed. Lawren Harris in the Ward: His Urban Poetry and Paintings. Holstein, Ont.: Exile Editions, 2007.
Harris, Lawren. "Theosophy and Art." The Canadian Theosophist 14.5 (July 15, 1933): 130-2.
Hunter, Andrew, curator. Lawren Stewart Harris: A Painter’s Progress. New York: Americas Society; Seattle: distributed by University of Washington Press, 2000.
Lawren Harris: Paintings 1910-1948. Vancouver Art Gallery, 1948

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