Lawren S Harris, “Billboard (Jazz)”, 1921, Oil on Canvas, 1072 x 1275 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
The first paintings Lawren Harris exhibited in Toronto in 1911 included urban scenes of streets and houses in The Ward, the largely immigrant area west of Toronto’s City Hall. Best known for his landscapes of Ontario’s near north, the Rocky Mountains and Arctic and later abstractions, Harris’s urban scenes played a key role in his exploration of the role of art in the transformations of Canadian society.
Harris exhibited several of his new “Shack Paintings” at the 1921 Group of Seven exhibition in the Art Gallery of Toronto. These paintings dealt with a subject he had been treating for almost ten years- houses in the poorer sections or in the unserviced and uninsurable outskirts of Toronto.
The painting “Jazz”, later retitled “Billboard” was provacative at the time, dealing with modern, urban life, considered by the then puritanical Toronto to be a decadent or immoral lifestyle. Painted with agressive brushwork and fractured text, it shows workers in the foreground and a row of frame houses receding in the background. The almost abstract billboard with its torn posters is the principle subject; this abstraction is carried across the top of the canvas by the torn clouds.
Over the course of his career, Lawren Harris’s painting evolved from Impressionist-influenced, decorative landscapes to stark images of the northern landscape to geometric abstractions. From 1934 to 1937, Harris lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he painted his first abstract works, a direction he would continue for the rest of his life.
In 1938 Harris moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, and helped found the Transcendental Painting Group, an organization of artists who advocated a spiritual form of abstraction. Harris died in Vancouver in 1970, at the age of 84, as a well-known artist. He was buried on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where his work is now held.