North Shore, Lake Superior has been called the most remarkable painting of the Lawren Harris’s career. It depicts Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes of North America, located in the Canadian province of Ontario. Harris explored and painted visions of the lake every year from 1921 to 1928, traveling with the painter and friend A. Y. Jackson. The artist was conquered by the dramatic, bare landscape composed of rocks, water, and light, and he called the skies of this region “sublime.” He could realize his desire to bring out a spiritual quality of what he observed, to show a metaphysical component of the subject. Harris painted many lake views, which changed as his style grew. While he began to capture the power of the Canadian wilderness with a style close to reality, as in Autumn Batchewana (1918), he increasingly simplified the shapes of his paintings, up to a symbolic spiritual vision of the landscapes he explored.
The composition of the painting is simple but profound: on a spur of rock suspended over the lake, a broken tree stump stands out against the sky, illuminated by the radiant bands of sunlight. The color’s surface is thin on the canvas, and the color range is restricted. The landscape is legible but elementary, captured in a few forms, all necessary elements are defined, but space is open, without unnecessary details. The stump is painted in gray and black tones, except for the side affected by light on the left side, incredibly white. It is broken in the middle by a black crack, which divides it into two parts that go towards the sky, almost enveloping itself, like two hands. Harris has reduced nature to its fundamental elements: few clear and symbolic features are described in its essential forms, pushing his art towards abstraction. The painter wants to show us the essence of the landscape he is observing and return it to us, not in a realistic vision, but a spiritual one. Following the ideas of Theosophy, Harris saw and reported in his paintings the spirituality of natural elements, the divine force that permeated nature, the Sun that animated the essence of the landscape. Harris was convinced that “art is a realm of life between our mundane everyday world and the world of the Spirit.” This spiritual vision gives to this painting its power.
Even the colors used by the artist are symbolic in Theosophical vision. Yellow is an earthly color; blue expresses a desire for transcendence; white represents unity, and the light of the pure spirit. Thus, the tree stump becomes a representation of the human spirit that stands between the light of the Spirit and the darkness of the world. Even the sky participates in the same division: on the right the simplified clouds are dark and heavy with rain, while they lighten in the left part, to leave space to the sun, which is absent from the painting, but whose light passes through the sky and the clouds and makes them clear in the sky, divided into bands of color depending on the intensity of the sun’s rays.
The apparently simple painting is full of contrasts that Harris manages to unify. It is an image of extraordinary power, a symbol of both the loneliness and the enduring spirit of the North; it is a revelation of Harris’s idea of the pure essence of the landscape where men are invited to abandon the appearance of things and contemplate the Spirit.
By Maddalena Mongera
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