#VIFF16: Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang on Lawren Harris
The Group of Seven founder rides a wave of rediscovery with the bow of a revealing and personal Harris documentary from Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang that gives the viewer a portal into the painter’s time
Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris
Streaming at TVO.org and at The Vancouver International Film Festival
The Idea of North
The Paintings of Lawren Harris
July 1 – September 18, AGO
By Katherine Monk
They are two wild and crazy guys. One of them is Steve Martin. The other is Canadian — and it’s not who you think it is. The banjo-playing comedian is attaching his wagon of fame to none other than Canadian landscape painter Lawren Harris these days as the curator behind a new exhibition of Harris’s work set to open at the Art Gallery of Ontario July 1.
Called The Idea of North, the show features 30 canvases pulled from private and public collections across the country, but the novelty is Martin himself, acting as de facto promoter for the Group of Seven’s famous founder.
“I thought here was an artist I discovered… until I saw one of his paintings sell for two million dollars.,” says Martin at the top of a new documentary about Harris that airs tonight on TVO and is available on-line starting June 26.
Titled Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris, the new film offers an interview with Martin in which he explains his passion for the bold colours and mystical landscapes. It also features personal photographs and film footage that has never been released to the public, including a few harrowing black and white minutes from Harris’s trip to the Arctic.
“The family opened up two boxes of family photographs that had never been seen before,” says Nancy Lang, co-director of Where the Universe Sings.
As an artist herself, Lang says she was well acquainted with Harris’s oeuvre before she spent two days in a Vancouver hotel room scanning images, but there was something about spending time in the Harris archives that gave her even deeper insights into the man that continues to define the Canadian experience.
“I knew a lot about him as a painter, but I was not so well acquainted with his larger life trajectory: the loss of his father and brother, the difficulties in his first marriage. Also the degree to which he helped other artists. He reached out to support others…. including Emily Carr.”
Lang says the scope of the man that emerged was completely inspirational and surprising, even though she’d already completed two other films dealing with complementary subject matter. She and Peter Raymont previously collaborated on movies about Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven, but this one was a little different.
For Lang, it’s the first credit as co-director and also something of a spiritual homecoming. “I spent several years in the U.S., and you don’t hear a lot about Canadian art. We don’t tell our stories as well as we could.”
Still trapped by some vestige of the colonial mentality, we often look to the U.S. for validation, which is why Steve Martin’s name is having such a significant effect on Harris’s cachet outside the country. The Idea of North was a smash at both UCLA’s Hammer Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where Lang and Raymont caught up with several of Harris’s canvases and captured them for the cameras.
“When you see the brushstrokes, you can really get into his head,” says Raymont. “And as filmmakers, you’re looking for that insight… “
Raymont says he focused on the spiritual side of Harris because his views in religion and theosophy aren’t often discussed, but they speak directly to his body of work, which sought to illustrate the divine in nature.
“I think we are all looking for the spiritual parts of life and perhaps the afterlife. This was the journey Harris was on. He was searching for ‘the summit of his soul where the universe sings’ – and he wanted to share that journey through his art. And that’s an extraordinary gift that he gave us.”
Raymont says you have to remember what Canada was like at the turn of the last century. “Art in Canada was still tied to Europe. The art on the walls were Dutch windmills and Victorian battle scenes. Paintings of trees and rivers in Algonquin Park weren’t considered art. It was only when they went to Buffalo and saw paintings from Norway and Sweden and Denmark, and saw trees covered in snow.. that was the turning point. And as a filmmaker, you’re always looking for turning points.”
Lang agrees. “What was exceptional about Harris was that he really wanted to give us Canadian art. The Group really were a band of renegades committed to establishing Canadian art on its own… You know, it was really on the train trip back to Toronto [after being in Europe] that it really hit him — how grand and enormous this country is, and he travelled it and painted it essentially end to end.”
What was exceptional about Harris was that he really wanted to give us Canadian art. The Group really were a band of renegades committed to establishing Canadian art on its own…
Part of the filming took Lang and Raymont back to the locales Harris made famous, from the icebergs off Newfoundland to the frozen peak of Mount LeFroy. Much of it looks exactly the same, but some of it doesn’t.
“If you look at the pictures from the 1940s, and see where the glaciers were, it looks very different now,” says Lang of Mt. LeFroy vistas. “But north of Lake Superior looks just the same.”
At the end of the day, it’s about spending time with the subject and seeing the world through a different portal, say Raymont and Lang.
Harris was a man who never stopped exploring. “He experimented with abstraction and kept pushing. He lost his faith, practised yoga… had a nervous breakdown… on Mount LeFroy he even had a speaking in tongues experience… He was searching,” says Lang.
“To walk inside his footsteps, even for a little bit, was a great privilege.”
Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris makes it world broadcast premiere tonight on TVO at 9pm ET. The film will be available to all for live streaming on TVO.org as of June 26. The Idea of North is currently in previews, and opens to the public at the Art Gallery of Ontario July 1.
THE EX-PRESS, June 25, 2016