Lawren Harris comes to life in “Where the Universe Sings”

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Ben Low as Lawren Harris painting Mount Lefroy, Alta., from Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey

Are you like me — watching more documentaries than ever before?
I find that when I get on a plane and check out the movie selections there is very little on the new releases that speak to me. All those superhero and comic book sagas — yeesh.
On my recent trip to Banff aboard Air Canada I checked out HBO’s documentary Becoming Mike Nichols. It was most becoming.
I flew back from Banff with the co-producer/director of an equally illuminating doc–Peter Raymont. Peter’s White Pine Pictures has been treating viewers to shows dramatic and scripted for years, including the CBC series The Border. He also won an Emmy for his 2004 doc, “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire.”
His latest doc, “Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris,” can be seen Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on TVO. Raymont made the film with first-time filmmaker Nancy Lang.
“This film is really a labour of love for Nancy and I,” he says,”the culmination of many years of determination and hard work.”
The two traveled extensively in re-tracing the footsteps of Canada’s most acclaimed landscape painter, someone who had the means of travel thanks to his family’s Massey-Harris fortune. The film follows the artist, who died in 1970 at the age of 85, to the north shore of Lake Superior as well as the peaks of the Rockies. There are also stops in Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Algoma, ‎the Arctic, Vancouver and New Hampshire.
The re-creations are deftly mixed with an extensive use of archival footage, some of it home movies shot by Harris himself. Most fascinating are the very early colour movies Harris took on trips to the arctic in the early ’30s.
There are also early black-and-white Toronto scenes from a century ago. They give some idea of the ramshackle, narrow but colourful row houses Harris painted in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward. Born of a silver spoon, Harris nevertheless seemed artistically drawn to the poorer streets of Toronto for inspiration.
Colm Feore speaks for Harris in several voice-overs, with Eric Peterson’s nasal-y voice cutting though as A.Y. Jackson. Emily Carr is voiced by Diane D’Aquilla.

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Martin with a Harris Jell-O mold of a mountain

There’s even a celebrity cameo from Steve Martin, who is wild and crazy for Harris. Martin is curating a Harris show at the Art Gallery of Ontario called “The Idea of The North” which begins July 1. He’s a Harris collector and flipped when he learned Harris originals were going in the two million range ( a couple have soared close to four).

The film also delves into Harris’ spiritual side, especially in exploring the abstract work he was committed to in the last 30 years of his life.

I’ve long been fascinated by Harris’ work. You used to be able to — for, I think, free — step right up to Group of Seven paintings in a room off the Arcadian Court at the Simpsons’ tower in Toronto. It was like a secret treasure trove of true Canadian art, a private gallery that was never crowded. Harris’ canvasses, also featured at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ont., seemed generally more epic than his Group-mates, a little more expressionistic–like a German film.

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Harris. Even his hair was a stylized mountain-scape

One of the discoveries of “Where the Universe Sings…” is to find that Harris was, indeed, during his most impressionable years, schooled on painting as well as philosophy in Germany. He came by that heightened, expressionistic sense of style naturally.

His epic mountain scapes must have influenced Warner Bros. background artist Maurice Noble, a frequent collaborator with the great director Chuck Jones. The riotously cinematic landscapes found in What’s Opera Doc? seem Harris heightened.

The documentary also features plenty of folks putting things in perspective,  including AGO’s Andrew Hunter, curator Sarah Milroy, biographer Peter Larisey, author Dennis Reid and Harris’ now elderly grandchildren Toni Chowne and Stew Sheppard.

The hour-long TVO premiere will skip some details of Harris’ busy life, including a stint at The Toronto Star. The whole 90-minute story will apparently premiere later this year at TIFF. See it now or then but treat yourself to a moving and entertaining look at a Canadian original and see it.

2 Responses to “Lawren Harris comes to life in “Where the Universe Sings””

  1. Neta wills

    I was able to catch a little of this doc on TVO recently. I was unable to detach myself from this documentary. I had no idea where his art came from within but so glad to have had the opportunity to see part of this. We grew up not far from the Franklin Carmichael art centre and my Mom and best friends are artists so I knew his work. Absolutely fascinating. How can I get this documentary for my Mom to watch. please let me know and thank you so much for this documentary.

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