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Finding divinity in empty spaces: Paintings of the vast Canadian landscape evoke a lost frontier and the power of nature

BOSTON – We sometimes roll our eyes at the mention of Canada, thinking of it as a bleak, cold and empty place, and the vast territory that sits above the cities of Montreal, Toronto, Saskatoon and Edmonton mostly is. But step inside a gallery of the much-ignored paintings of Lawren Harris and your eyes won’t roll so much as they will open – open to a place bleak, cold and empty.

That, after all, is one of the principal purposes of art: to open your eyes. And this exhibit, in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, surely will do so. The images are stark, forbidding. They are bereft of humans, even of the implements and structures of humankind. They are portraits of nature naked and untamed, and unromantic.

“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer – its cleansing rhythms,” said Harris, whose three dozen modernist paintings are on exhibit here through June 12.

It’s all right to admit you’ve never heard of Lawren Harris, though perhaps it will help if you’re told he was one of Canada’s Group of Seven, the marvelous North American landscape artists. And though an introduction to his work, and to Canadian culture more broadly, may not be internet click bait, that in itself is a reminder of the blinders we on this side of the 49th parallel have to life above our northern border.

“I know of no more impressive scenery in Canada for the landscape painter,” A.J. Jackson, the Group of Seven painter you are most likely to have encountered, said of Lake Superior, where many of the Harris paintings are set. The two often traveled together.

“There is a sublime order to it,” wrote Jackson, “the long curves of the beaches, the sweeping ranges of hills, and headlands that push out into the lake.”

These Harris paintings of remote Lake Superior are dominated by bare trees. The colors he employs range from Windex azure to deep-sea blue. The skies almost always are awash in sunshine, a symbol of the optimism of this most optimistic of North American artists – and of his view that wisdom can come from observing our surroundings. Harris, who died in 1970, harbored the conviction that human understanding was derived from nature, and he believed in the regenerative power of Canada’s north.

Harris painted widely on the shores of Lake Superior, in the Arctic and in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. An unknown artist here, he is an icon in Canada, in part because he created an iconography of Canada’s landscape.

“We wanted to present some of his best work to people who had no idea who he was,” says Taylor Poulin, born in Bradford, Ont., and reared in Toronto before joining the Museum of Fine Arts and working on this exhibit.

The artist traveled to the Arctic only once, in 1930, with Jackson in tow, and in his paintings of the region there is a sense of calm that seems to exist in spite of the cold and bitter winds.

“It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America,” Harris said, “and we Canadians, being closest to this source, seem destined to produce our art somewhat different from our Southern fellows – our art more spacious, of a greater living quiet, perhaps of a more certain conviction of eternal values.”

Down here we don’t like to be told that others have a greater conviction of eternal values – how many times have you heard anyone besides Conrad Black speak of “Canadian exceptionalism?” – but the great open spaces that defined the United States in the 19th century were gone, according to a Census Bureau reckoning, by 1890. They still exist north of the border, and the message from the Boston exhibit is that Canada is a vast and wild place, that its land is relatively empty of people, that nature is a powerful force and that there is a divinity in it, waiting to be discovered far from human habitation.

This is not the place to mourn the disappearance of the American frontier; historians have been debating its importance, if any, since Frederick Jackson Turner described it in 1893 as one of the defining elements of our national character. But it may be the place to acknowledge merely that a sturdy factor in our early national character has grown more elusive today. Its presence in Canada is the exception that makes the point.

And so, as visitors linger in these galleries, it is impossible to ignore the fact that in all these paintings there are mountains but not men, wilderness but not women. In fact, there is almost nothing that lives but trees, and it may be that all of the trees in these Harris paintings are in fact dead by now.

All that raises a question that preoccupied American artists of the Hudson River School, whose paintings suggested a divinity in the landscape of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York – and later, curiously, of Canada’s Maritime provinces: What kind of divinity is there without humans?

Of course, humans ended up filling those divine wild places in America – but generally have yet to do so in Canada. Surely we cannot believe, along with the English poet Reginald Heber, that every prospect pleases, but only man is vile? Perhaps that is the subject of another meditation.

But before we depart, let’s meditate if only for a moment on one further aspect of this exhibit of great Canadian works, for the surprises do not end with these paintings.

Look carefully at the exhibit and its catalogue and you will see that the curator is Steve Martin. You know him as the “wild and crazy guy” from “Saturday Night Live,” from “Father of the Bride” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but apparently you do not know him until you realize that among his many interests – he’s a playwright, screenwriter and musician, as well as an actor and comedian – are Canadian paintings. By the time you complete your journey through Canada’s far north, you may share his passion.

David M. Shribman, a former Buffalo News reporter, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.