Lawren Phillips Harris was born at Toronto in 1910. He was the eldest son of the famous Canadian artist Lawren Stewart Harris who was a founding member and leader in the Group of Seven. The son embraced the family tradition by studying art under his father and by having the benefit of advice from some of Canada’s most prominent painters.
Harris also studied at Toronto’s Central Technical School and at the Museum of Fine Arts school in Boston, Mass. He worked as a teacher until February 1941 when he enlisted as an officer in the Canadian Armoured Corps. He served in Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy. “I left my studio for a tank,” he once said.
By December 1943, Harris became an official war artist and soon found himself in Italy where he produced scenes and portraits of the heavily damaged town of Ortona and the Liri Valley. “Before the war, one or two of the things I did became pretty abstract, so I could see I was heading that way…. When the war art program started, all that had to go. The board wanted the works to be as representational and realistic as possible…. When I first got to Italy…we were stuck outside of Ortona…. It rained all the time. We lived in rubber boots. The things that impressed me most were the ruined buildings. I was fascinated by those…. To me they were the monuments. Another thing that impressed me, which I thought was terrifying, was the poor Italian peasants. They had been robbed silly by the Germans of all their cattle and their sheep…. We did do what we could to help, giving them what food we could. Most of their farms were shattered, anything that stood in the way was knocked down.”
The surreal quality of his paintings is reminiscent of his father’s style. But where Harris senior’s palette was cold, much of the son’s wartime work was golden, combining khakis, yellows and browns to mimic the colours of Italy. Harris lays down the thick yellow dust in oils and with careful realism brings us a new vision of the Italian Campaign. Many of his final paintings were composed like a collage, combining images that were not necessarily together on the battlefield. This allows us to grasp the entirety of war as opposed to a more limited snapshot.
Harris left the military in June 1946 and became director of the fine arts department at Mount Allison University at Sackville, N.B. For the next 30 years he nurtured students and worked to popularize modern art in the Maritimes. He died at Ottawa in 1994.
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