Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris
By James King. Thomas Allen, 384 pp, hardcover
Lawren Harris is one of Canada’s most esteemed historical artists. Born into wealth and privilege, he might have flitted through life as a handsome, well-dressed dilettante. Instead, he led the Group of Seven, enacted a religious devotion to painting, and left behind an extraordinary legacy of work. He was generous in support of his fellow artists and resolute in his advocacy of a national identity in art. In both cultural and material terms, his paintings are among this country’s most valuable and avidly collected.
For these reasons, it is surprising that James King’s Inward Journey is the first biography of Harris, who was born in Brantford, Ontario, in 1885 and died in Vancouver in 1970. However, as King explains in his acknowledgments, when he began researching Harris’s life 15 years ago, he met the resistance of the artist’s daughter, Margaret Knox. It was not until after her death that the project could proceed.
The resulting book is a thorough work of scholarship, telling Harris’s story in a straightforward fashion, from his upbringing in a staunch Christian family and his art studies in Berlin to his conversion to theosophy, his early social concerns, and his important place in the cultural fabric of Toronto and Canada. His emotional life is recorded here too, including his grief at the premature deaths of his father, his brother, and his friend and fellow painter Tom Thomson, the dissatisfactions he experienced in his first marriage, the joys he found in his second, his scandal-driven departure from Toronto, and his subsequent moves to New Hampshire, New Mexico, and, finally, Vancouver. In trying to reveal the “inner thoughts and feelings” of his reticent subject, however, King imagines, in italics at the beginning of each chapter, what they might have been. Often cliché-ridden, these passages add little to our understanding of Harris.
As King reports, although Harris’s early aspiration was to express nationalistic ideals through images of the Canadian wilderness, his later struggle in art was to detach his paintings from the landscape subject and express his spiritual beliefs in purely abstract terms. Where King disappoints is in his reading of Harris’s paintings: his analyses of individual works are short and simplistic, and I would dispute a number of his interpretations. What he does convey, however, is Harris’s courage in embracing abstraction at a time when it had little sympathetic reception in Canada, and in pursuing a life shaped by his creative convictions.