You know him as Inspector Clouseau, the dad in Cheaper by the Dozen and as ‘that hilarious white-haired comedian.’ You probably don’t know him as Steve Martin, art curator extraordinaire. Well, you’re about to. It turns out, Martin has been collecting artwork since the ’70s and at one time had a pretty extensive collection. It wasn’t until he came upon Canadian Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris that he decided he needed to curate. You can tell by the way he talks about him (and the fact that he dedicated three years to creating an exhibit) that Steve is in love with Harris’ work. He says his first thought upon seeing it was ‘I need it’ and his second was ‘why isn’t he famous?’ Obviously at the time he didn’t know that every child educated in Canada is exposed to Harris and the Group of Seven in elementary school.
But Steve Martin just can’t get enough of Lawren Harris. He spent three years collaborating with Andrew Hunter at the Art Gallery of Ontario curating The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris. Then he sat down with Hunter to tell us why Harris is so important to him. He’s a funny man, but his love for art is no joke.
Here’s why Steve Martin thinks you should probably cancel all your Canada Day plans and head over to the AGO to see the Lawren Harris exhibit instead.
He passes his test of a ‘good’ artist
Every artist paints (or creates) within a certain theme. Steve suggests that the test of a good artist is how well they can remain within their style, while still producing varied and fresh art. He didn’t get tired of Lawren Harris over years of staring at his work. So he passes.
He gives you the right feels
Martin says when he saw his first Harris he was initially awestruck and then jealous. Those are the right feels when it comes to art. Amazement at the work and then the overwhelming feeling that you could never create something as good.
His sketches are just as good as completed work
The exhibit includes many of Harris’ sketches of landscapes which plot out the paintings he would eventually create. Martin looks at these as pieces of art on their own, not as simply plans for the real art. You can see his distinct style even in pencil.
He never got stuck in his ways
Another mark of a good artist is knowing when to move on. Martin feels that Harris completed his mission in one area and then moved on–like Van Gogh–rather than repeating his work.
The intrigue of why he switched subject matter
Around 1921-1923 Harris switched his subject matter drastically from city scenes of the developing urban Toronto to the Lake Superior-style landscapes he was most known for. Martin says that if he could ask Harris one question it would be why he made this switch.
His approach to landscape
Not every place Harris painted was actually a real geographic location. Harris toyed with the concept of ‘ideas’ of places. He would paint a mountain that didn’t necessarily exist, but looks like it could. This concept was the inspiration for the title, The Idea of North.
The specific Canadian landscape
Even though all the places weren’t actually real Canadian landscapes, Harris’ style is distinctly Canada. We have a northern landscape unique to our country and Harris captured that perfectly. There is no way his work could be anything but the True North.
We can’t do the intricate variety of colour present in Harris’ paintings justice on your screen. Martin explained how when he first saw a Harris painting in a book, he just saw lights and darks. When you experience his work in real life, you see a depth of colour impossible to reproduce. As Steve said, ‘Wait! There’s purple in there!’
Psychology in the landscape
Martin talks about the way Harris adds his own psychology to his landscapes. He’s not only saying ‘this is a mountain,’ he’s saying ‘this is how I feel when I see a mountain.’ Steve describes a ‘spiritual or metaphysical aura’ in his painting.
How transferable his work is
Part of the Toronto exhibit includes modern art in response to Lawren Harris’ paintings. There is even an immersive ballet, “The Dreamers Ever Leave You,” choreographed by Robert Binet. Harris’ work can be endlessly interpreted and responded to through different forms of art.
Steve Martin’s Lawren Harris exhibit, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, opens July 1st at the Art Gallery of Ontario.