LOT 105

1885 - 1970

Birch Bushes
oil on board, circa 1921 - 1923
signed and on verso signed twice, titled and also titled "Lake Superior Country" on the gallery label and inscribed "Lake Superior Country" and "VI," with the Doris Mills inventory #4/127 and with the artist's symbol
10 1/2 x 13 1/2 in 26.7 x 34.3 cm

Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000

Preview at: Heffel Vancouver

Winchester Galleries, Victoria
Collection of Laurie Guthrie, Edmonton

Doris Mills, L.S. Harris Inventory, 1936, Lake Superior Sketches, Group 4, listed, catalogue #127, titled as Birch Bushes, location noted as the Studio Building

Birch Bushes, an invigorating, vibrant work by Lawren Harris, comes from early in his exploration of the Lake Superior area, and depicts the rugged topography and characteristic hills that provided the subject, or the vantage point, for much of the artist’s output in this region. The undulating terrain and bold chromatic depiction of the scene invite the viewer into a landscape that for seven years was the muse of an artist pushing his aesthetic horizons, and who expanded the visual culture of Canada.

The work was painted on a trip between 1921 and 1923, when Harris was using panels of this 10 ½ x 13 ½ inch size,[1] and when he would have been accompanied by A.Y. Jackson. Perhaps influenced by his companion’s signature attraction to the rhythm of the landscape and the repeating patterns of the hills, Harris found great interest in the rough topography of the area. The central hill motif in this work was a recurring fascination, a theme fully realized in one of his masterworks, Above Lake Superior (circa 1924), in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

When we look back with the insight of history, the trajectory of Harris’s career seems to follow a clear and determined path - starting from the subdued early explorations of outdoor sketching in the Laurentians, then expanding to take in the majesty and opulence of Canada’s northern winters, followed by the vibrancy of Algoma and the energy of urban Toronto, and maturing into the austerity of the Rockies, Lake Superior and the solemnity of the Arctic. Harris finally reached the untethered culmination of all of the above in his abstract work, and markers left along the way allow us to follow his development. This process of evolution for the artist himself, however, could not have been nearly as straightforward, and it was a diligent pursuit of innovation and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of his artistic practice and applying new modern art ideas to the Canadian context. This oil sketch provides a wonderful example of Harris enjoying the freedom of expression that his mission demanded.

Harris was well educated in artistic tradition, having attended art school in Berlin from 1904 to 1907, and he frequently traveled to international exhibitions and museums in Europe and the United States. These experiences also fostered a passionate awareness of contemporary developments in modern art, which he responded to enthusiastically and promoted in his work throughout his career. He was the sole Canadian artist represented in the 1926 International Exhibition of Modern Art Assembled by the Société Anonyme show at the Brooklyn Museum and was instrumental in bringing it to Toronto in 1927, emphatically championing the art it presented to the Canadian public for the first time.[2]

The 1920s saw rapid and exciting changes in Harris’s artistic approaches, with much of this happening at Lake Superior. This was the site where, as with his simplification of form, Harris began a process of refining his use of colour, and restricting the range for each work or subject. Whereas his work in Algoma was often bright and naturalistic (albeit enhanced), at Lake Superior he began to increasingly stylize his palettes, turning from the prismatic Algoma celebrations to curated filters portraying the essential truths he sought to convey. This honing of restraint and deliberate intention would serve him strongly during his final phase of landscape painting and into his later focus on abstraction.

In this painting, the emphasis of colour contrasts resonates with his future paths, but also with the work he would have seen by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin: bold juxtapositions of complementary contrasts, with yellow birches vibrating in front of violet hills, green foliage enlivened by deep red growth between the rocks. While Harris was always remarkable in his treatment of grand themes like mountains and expansive skies, he also had a superb ability to irradiate all his subjects. In finding the harmonic colour resonances in this scene, Harris has elevated the rough northern Ontario country into a modern art vision.

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

1. Harris used these smaller panels in 1924 as well, but does not seem to have traveled to Lake Superior that year. Upon returning to Superior in autumn 1925, he had transitioned to 12 x 15 inch boards.

2. Lawren Harris, “Modern Art and Aesthetic Responses: An Appreciation,” Canadian Forum 7 (May 1927): 239–41.

Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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