Review: Where the Universe Sings

A Screening Room journey through the life of Lawren Harris

An actor playing Harris in the featured film. 
Credit: 
via Vimeo

When I walked through the familiar doors of The Screening Room’s theatre, I wasn’t expecting to be the youngest person in the room by at least 30 years. In the midst of this mature crowd, I took my seat for the film we’d all gathered to witness, Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris.

Lawren Harris was a prominent Canadian artist, well known for his membership in the Group of Seven — a collective of seven artists who revolutionized Canadian art through unique painting styles that sought to embody the vibrant Canadian landscape.   

Co-directed by Emmy-winner and Queen’s alumni Peter Raymont and Nancy Lang, this significant delve into Canadian art history originally premiered in June and debuted in Kingston on Saturday, February 11.

Before the film, Raymont took the microphone, ending by reminding us that one of Harris’ masterpieces was featured briefly at the beginning of the film — my eyes were peeled.

The film began with a brief history of Harris’ family in Canada, emphasizing their wealth, religious status and position in society. The majority of the shots were stills of old photographs including Harris’ baby photos, portraits of his parents and authentic black and white video footage of Toronto’s bustling streets at the turn of the 20th century. While the photos were interesting due to their context, the slideshow effect wasn’t particularly lively.

The stills were interspersed with live action shots of actors playing Harris, narrated by his own words retrieved from letters dating back to the early 1900s. The letter-reading, while an interesting way to learn about Harris’ psyche, quickly lost its novelty and never really came to an end.

At the beginning of his career, Harris co-funded the building of The Studio, a studiospace in Toronto for artists, which would become the birthplace of the Group of Seven. The Group’s boxcar trips around Canada served as inspiration for the improvement of their collective painting technique, and the film featured stunning aerial footage of the shores of Algoma, Lake Superior and the Montreal River.

The serene shots would then fade into photographs of Harris’ artistic representation on that particular landscape, framed and hanging on a gallery wall. A trip to Jasper National Park in 1924 was largely illustrated by actual video footage of Harris and A.Y. Jackson — friend and fellow artist — as they scrambled around rolling hills with sketchbooks.

A trip to Jasper National Park in 1924 was largely illustrated by actual video footage of Harris and A.Y. Jackson — friend and fellow artist — as they scrambled around rolling hills with sketchbooks.

Harris’ mountain scapes began to pile up during his time on the west coast. His work was revolutionary at the time, largely due to his commitment to extremely detailed, fine strokes that blended together seamlessly. The mountains he painted loomed and glistened, the snow seemed to hold a certain warmth and the scenes looked almost photographic in their final stages.

During this time, Harris also developed a friendship with Canadian painter Emily Carr, whose personal letters to Harris were read out loud in the film. This is the part where I began to compulsively check my watch, as the letter-reading scenes were narrated in an overly dramatic way that made me sort of glad that Carr and Harris would never be subject to this particular rendition.

Harris’ spiritual journey became more clear as his art grew with him into old age. The most touching part of the documentary was hearing Harris’ account of life in the wake of his second wife, Bess Housser’s death in 1969 — an event which sparked Harris’ poetic side. What stood out and surprised me above all was the way Harris had with words, not just a paintbrush.

What stood out and surprised me above all was the way Harris had with words, not just a paintbrush.

Over 100 years later, Canadians are still fascinated with Harris’ stunning work. While Where the Universe Sings fell relatively flat in terms of excitement, the significance of Harris’ work is undoubtable. Harris was among the first painters to explore Canada’s vibrant and unique landscapes and as such he left his permanent stroke on our nation.

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