Lawren Harris and Theosophy – Part One
Published: Saturday, 17 April 2010 12:37
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.
Read more: Lawren Harris and Theosophy – Part One