LOT 218

1885 - 1970

Migratory Flight
oil on canvas, circa 1950
on verso signed, titled, inscribed "F112" and variously and stamped Lawren Harris LSH Holdings Ltd. 158
42 1/2 x 49 1/2 in, 108 x 125.7 cm

Estimate: $100,000 - $150,000 CAD

Sold for: $217,250

Preview at:

Collection of the Artist
LSH Holdings Ltd., Vancouver
Estate of the Artist
The Collection of Torben V. Kristiansen, Vancouver

Canadian Group of Painters 56/57, Art Gallery of Toronto, 1956, listed and reproduced, unpaginated
Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove, editors, Lawren Harris, 1969, listed page 145 and reproduced page 95, dated 1950
Dennis Reid, Atma Buddhi Manas: The Later Work of Lawren S. Harris, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1985, listed and reproduced page 92, dated circa 1954

Vancouver Art Gallery, Lawren Harris, Recent Paintings, May 10 – June 15, 1955, catalogue #21
Art Gallery of Toronto, Canadian Group of Painters 56/57, November 9 – December 26, 1956, traveling to the Vancouver Art Gallery, January 1957, catalogue #26
Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor, Lawren Harris, March 19 - April 2, 1958, traveling to the Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Museum, London, catalogue #9
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Lawren Harris Retrospective Exhibition, June 7 - September 8, 1963, traveling to the Vancouver Art Gallery, October 4 - 27, 1963, titled A Migratory Flight, dated 1954 - 1956, catalogue #62
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Atma Buddhi Manas: The Later Work of Lawren S. Harris, September 28 - November 24, 1985, traveling in 1986 to the Vancouver Art Gallery, Winnipeg Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, catalogue #59

Migratory Flight is a prime example of Lawren S. Harris’s explorations of Abstract Expressionism, which represent the artist’s freest and most diverse period of creativity. Painted in the early 1950s, this energetic and bold work finds Harris balancing his interest in line-based composition alongside organic shapes and a limited, carefully honed colour palette. Unlike many of his other abstract works, there are no known variations on this composition, neither preceding sketches nor alternative versions. Instead, this is Harris presenting a singular vision, both distinct from his other paintings and yet instantly recognizable as at home within his catalogue.

In this work, one finds the echoes of familiar abstracted depictions of nature that connect Harris’s landscape period to his abstracts. The jagged, white-outlined forms mimic cloud shapes that Harris would commonly sketch, appearing often as components of his Lake Superior works, and, increasingly after he moved to New Hampshire in 1934, as stand-alone depictions. By the 1950s, when Migratory Flight was painted, Harris had evolved from his early practice of taking natural elements from the environment and depicting them in rearranged, yet often quite literal, forms. Instead, he chose to develop and reconstruct novel shapes out of fragments of the familiar, as we see here with the enigmatic, pale focal points of this work, which seem to be moving across the picture plane in flight. Examples of such parallel efforts translating nature into new languages include the canvas Autumn Rhythm (circa 1957, in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection) and the circa 1950 work In Memoriam to a Canadian Artist (private collection).

Harris’s relationship with titling his works was somewhat unpredictable, and he often preferred not to title them at all. But for a 1955 exhibition of his abstracts, entitled Recent Paintings (in which this present work was featured), all 22 paintings were given evocative names. His writing on the aforementioned In Memoriam to a Canadian Artist offers insight into his process: “When I laid in the painting, it suddenly struck me that it could express Tom Thomson, and therefore it was Tom I had in mind—his remoteness, his genius, his reticence.”[1] In these Abstract Expressionist works of the 1950s, Harris seems to have discovered the nature of representational elements as they emerged, and only after a work was done might he be able to retrospectively assign a title such as Migratory Flight, having then realized the nature of unconscious inspiration. Given the location of Harris’s easel, beside a large picture window overlooking Burrard Inlet, the influence of passing clouds and flying birds is easy to imagine.

As an ever-evolving artist, Harris was continually reinventing his approaches, and he was keenly aware of artistic developments both in Canada and globally. Despite him being in his late sixties when this work was painted, Migratory Flight is remarkably contemporary for the time; it resonates directly with the works of his younger contemporaries in Painters Eleven, including Jack Bush and Jock Macdonald. Harris at this point was a giant on the national arts scene (in 1948, he was the first living artist to have a comprehensive exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto). There was widespread admiration for the work he had done and, for those who were attuned to the evolution of contemporary art, for the work he was continuing to do.

In celebrating the opening of Harris’s 1963 retrospective show in Vancouver, in which this work was exhibited, fellow artist Jack Shadbolt wrote to Harris to convey his appreciation. Poetically capturing the way in which Harris’s work had permeated the Canadian cultural fabric and, in particular, expanded the boundaries of art in this country, he penned, “I wish you most warmly and personally the solid recognition of your break-through to important territory for us all. I don’t have to wish your works that recognition. They are already in our language.”[2]

We thank Alec Blair, Director/Lead Researcher, Lawren S. Harris Inventory Project, for contributing the above essay.

1. Lawren Harris, quoted in Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove, eds., Lawren Harris (Toronto: Macmillan, 1969), 43.

2. Jack Shadbolt to Lawren Harris, October 3, 1963, Estate of Lawren S. Harris.

For the biography on Torben V. Kristiansen in PDF format, please click here.

Estimate: $100,000 - $150,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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