Friday, June 24, 2016

Lawren Harris Receives His Due In New TV Portrait

Film makers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their new documentary Where The Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey Of Lawren Harris.
Harris, a Group of Seven Artist died in 1970 aged 85 and all the contemporaries who knew him have died as well.
Harris's grandchildren are interviewed but even they are elderly.
Still,  Harris's remarkable journey springs alive and his odyssey is both dramatic and poignant.
You can see for yourself: Where The Universe Sings premieres on TVOntario Saturday June 25 at 9 p.m.
Lang is a first time director while veteran Raymont won an Emmy for another documentary Shake Hands With The Devil.
The beautifully made portrait is only the latest example of the commitment to quality documentaries TVO is making as compared to the startling drop off at CBC.
Last month TVO's My Millennial Life was the best Canadian made documentary of the month.
This June that mantle passes again to TVO for Where The Universe Sings.
Over 130 of his paintings get showcased here but there are also Harris family home movies including the majestic scenes shot by Harris during his seminal ocean voyage into the High Arctic.
"The film coincides with an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario," Lang says. "But he has always been appreciated here at home."
The story begins with the recent sale of a Harris work and the adulation of comic Steve Martin who mistakenly thought he was discovering a long lost Canadian master.
"He came from a very wealthy Toronto family --they owned Massey Harris," explains Raymont.
Early paintings show what kind of a city Toronto was at the turn of the century --there are even figures seen on the streets --he didn't just paint landscapes.
A 1913 trip to a Buffalo art exhibit showed him  how to move past contemporary constraints of society.
The portrait of Harris is of an inward painter striving to find himself.
Trips to Algoma starting in 1916 opened up his art and together with other Seven artists he threw off the shackles of  nineteen century attitudes.
"No doubt about it he communed with Nature," Lang says. "The trips to northern Ontario opened up his perspective."
Harris was wealthy enough to live in Forest Hill. He had three children but his treatment of his first wife was sexist by our standards. And later he divorced her and married soul mate Bess Housser.
The first Mrs. Harris "lived on in an apartment in north Toronto and never remarried," Lang reports.
The epochal sea trip through Arctic waters produced many stunning canvases. These are triumphs of loneliness and austerity but have incredible emotional power.
I like the way his friendship with Emily Carr is depicted.
Harris's own letters and writings are voiced by Colm Feore and Eric Peterson voices A.Y. Jackson, one of Harris's staunchest supporters.
Also interviewed:  AGO's Andrew Hunter, Vancouver Art Gallery's Ian Thom, curator Sarah Milroy, biographer Peter Larisey, author Dennis Reid.
TVO gets the first window and this brilliant portrait will later be seen on Documentary.
Am I the only one who found Harris's later foray into abstract art underwhelming.
"It's not what makes him famous," laughs Lang. "And he did it when he was at Dartmouth College and later when he was at Santa Fe, He never completely left his mountains behind. him."
There are even extracts from some TV conversations when Harris was white haired and shaky, still searching in his art and continuing his spiritual journey.
Raymont says there's a longer theatrical version he hopes will be shown at TIFF.
This tightly edited hour is satisfying on several levels, a must-see slice of Canadiana.
I see it as a companion documentary to Raymont and Lang's equally propelling documentary West Wind, a 2011 documentary on Tom Thomson.
MY RATING: ****.

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