Overdue Biography of Lawren Harris a Delight, Valuable Resource

Article excerpt

The first-ever biography of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris is long-overdue and a delight.

McMaster University professor James King accomplishes for this silver-spooned artist-mystic, silver-tongued nationalist, and latter-day wife-swapping celibate what Ross King (no relation) did for the Group of Seven as a whole in Defiant Spirits (2010).

Inward Journey is written in a sympathetic tone for a broad audience without skimping on footnotes and references, proving at once an energetic read and a valuable resource.

King -- who has made inward journeying his career, having already published numerous biographies on the likes of Virginia Woolf, William Blake and Margaret Laurence -- is a deft and subtle narrator.

The book is well illustrated with images of Harris's work from throughout his career. It also contains numerous photographs of the artist at his sometimes dapper, other times pugnacious, yet always charming best.

King hits all the touchstones of development upon which Harris's reputation as a painter is built: the estheticized slums of Toronto and Halifax; the icy portraits of those for whom the artist felt deep spiritual connection; wilderness landscapes, from the rioting colours and roiling contours of Algoma, to the encrusted whiteness of the Arctic; the geometric abstraction, at once a perfect expression of Harris's transmigratory mindset and utterly impenetrable to anyone lacking taste for theosophy, Harris' spiritual Kool-Aid.

One writer, Robert Linsley, has called theosophy the "ideological inversion of Marxism." It proffered an ersatz radicalism, envisioning social equality through cosmic, rather than class consciousness.

Theosophy lies at the crux of Harris's art, and spiritual solace at the heart of his life story. The proto-new age movement whose doctrine is a cobbled assortment of Eastern mysticism, philosophical Idealism and American Transcendentalism, was Harris' spiritual navigator.

It was the fount that allowed him to maintain intellectual integrity -- his nationalism, the progressive socio-spiritual role he envisioned for art -- and kick back righteously at godless materialism, both economic and metaphysical.

Theosophy also supplied Harris a recipe for marital happiness. Born in Brantford, Ont., in 1885 into means (his family was the Harris in Massey-Harris Co. Ltd.), he also married into wealth and was made miserable by it. …