A documentary by Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang. Rated G
In Where the Universe Sings, there’s a hugely illuminating sequence of Group of Seven leader Lawren Harris’s paintings of Lake Superior’s Pic Island. Edited together in the order he worked on them, the images reveal the way the celebrated artist would strip away forms to the essential, imbuing them with a transcendental light.
Though very much in the vein of educational TV-doc filmmaking, this thorough new movie will raise your appreciation for Harris’s glowing ice forms and dreamlike islandscapes. After almost a century, Harris is enjoying massive new interest, his best-known collector being actor Steve Martin, who curated last year’s Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit and who appears amid a parade of experts in the film.
The doc provides ample opportunity to examine Harris’s art on a big screen, from his early representational work of Toronto street scenes, to his expressive and then abstracted landscapes, to the full-on, out-there abstraction that took his focus in late life.
It also attempts to reveal the forces that shaped his life, from wartime disillusionment to meetings with Emily Carr, whom he encouraged to take a dramatic new direction.
But Harris remains a bit of an enigma. Camera-shy and modest, he didn’t leave a lot of traces on film, so directors Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang build the portrait through dramatizations (cue his character surveying vast mountain ranges) and voice-overs of his letters and writing by Colm Feore.
We learn his marriage broke up, we trace his movement from Rocky Mountain peaks to Maritime mining strikes to Arctic ice floes, and we witness the wealth that allowed him to pursue his art, and possibly drove him to depict the poorer quarters of his home city early on. We also glimpse his spiritual side, but the theosophy he believed in is almost impenetrable. All we know is his soaring peaks and luminescent natural forms reach for some higher place.
What’s telling is that, even after all the film’s analysis and birth-to-death storytelling, so much of the man’s true heart remains a mystery.
Then again that mystery, and the way his forms hold such otherworldly power—the kind that you feel more than you intellectualize—is probably a big reason we are still so fascinated with him today.