Anthony Easton on William Kurelek
William Kurelek was an outsider artist: he had the mental illness, the geographical isolation, the ethnic worries, the religious obsessive, and the monastic, hermetic strangeness expected of people reclaimed as art brut after death. William Kurelek was an insider artist, he was collected by governments, museums, corporate collections and the industrial elite, his gallerist was among the most famous in Canada, and he was cunning in matters of personae, cash flow, and networking. His work is both cloying and visionary, rural nostalgia and apocalyptic terror, tender and daring. Thinking about the tensions and delicacies of the negotiations, and the ambiguous effect, 30 years after his death, is to question the very core of outsider status. Writing about this ambiguity, I am hoping to return him to his proper status: as one of the most important religious painters of the 20th century.
Unpeeling the onion is finding where the isolation central to Kurelek began with, the central beginning fact, and something that he returns to, is his role as not only a prairie painter but some kind of dumb hick. He grew up in Whitford, Alberta, and then for high school moved to Stonewall and then Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father farmed grain in Alberta, and raised cattle elsewhere. Though he claimed to be part of a larger community of Ukrainian speakers in Alberta, he also talked about how much he despised his father, and how isolated he felt from the mainstream—how that growing up in Whitford had set him apart. Whitford has returned the favour, Lacombe, a larger town, has absorbed it and Lacombe has not noted his beginning there. In a diary he wrote in 1965 when he went back to the farm from Christmas, he talks about how this farm life centered his continued practice: "I recall how in…western winter; nothing sheltered a man sufficiently except the heated farm house and so I compared it to a person in this life trying to find comfort in all sorts of places and activities."
Moving to Stonewall at the age of 15, when the farm and other investments his father made crashed because of the Great Depression, was a continued frustration. In later interviews, he told scholars and journalists that he got attacked when he went to school, because he could not speak English well, he didn't wear the right clothes, and occasionally he smelt like shit. It sounded like the usual tensions between a farm kid and a city kid in certain schools that were located in places that accepted both. When he moved onto Winnipeg itself, and then the University, he still felt like he didn't belong, I think that part of the isolation was that he always felt, as he wrote to his gallerist Av Isaacs in 1964, "like a clumsy farmer", and this was after he spent time in Mexico, India and London, while living in the biggest city in Canada.
I'm getting ahead of myself. His move to Winnipeg proper, after high school was a move away from a geographic, physical isolation and a move onto an ethnic one. In high school, though he learned English, he still very much felt like a Ukrainian in an Anglophone world. His biographer, Patricia Morley, would write about this time: "Humiliation came in several forms. The first was language. The Kureleks spoke Ukrainian at home…Bill and John, began school together in March of 1934, discovered that there was a taboo on any language but English in the public school…Decades later , Bill remembered the disapproval that greeted his exclamation of "Mookha! Mookha" (Ukrainian for "fly") and he credited the incident with inhibiting his enthusiasm for oral expression." Here he ties his ethnic and his occupational history as the central place where to begin with his work.
Like many students, Kurelek wandered after high school, spending some time finishing an art degree at the Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto, and the Instutio Allende, in Mexico. His time at both would prove fecund. He ended up living in Toronto for most of his adult life, marrying and having children, finding work, and commercial success there. He found Jesus in Mexico, wandering the desert, and hearing prophetic voices coming for mysterious figures. He claimed that these figures told him that he would do great things, and he wrote about these great things, and the general feelings of prophecy, in a 12-page hand-written letter to his roommate, Fairfield, back in Toronto.
This trip to Mexico would be the beginning of his life as a religious figure, though his parents did not actively talk about god in the house, and his father was dismissive of it, there was a bit of cultural heritage that he inherited. Though the heritage came about in different places than the usual Catholic orthodoxy. Materials left by the Jehovah's Witnesses inspired some of his first drawings. Their lurid demons, monsters, and other consequences of the apocalypse would both excite and frighten him as a child, resulting in some of the first drawings he ever did, and drawings he remembered several times afterwards, including his autobiography, and interviews with Morley.
The messages in the Mexican desert would be the beginning of his role as a prophet (and it makes sense that it was in the desert, all the great catholic cranks began in the desert) the biggest religious changes began with his time spent in London. In his autobiography, he claimed that he went to London to "complete his art schooling and to find, through hospitalization, for his chronic depression and inexplicable eye pains" This statement in many ways, is the crux of Kurelek, his mental illness and psychosomatic blindness, the half of his personality as prophet, and stranger in a strange land, the furthering of his art education being a sophisticated center.
London was the beginning of this split in Kurelek, the one that is the centre of my arguments, and it might be a good idea to explore each more carefully. The paintings that he saw in London, at private galleries and public museums were the best of northern European work. He worked as a framer at several places, and returned to the work when he moved back to Toronto. The work that he saw in those galleries in London was high end, both decorative and more specific, he had an art training, not only looking at canvases with much care, but also literally deconstructing them, to make sure they fit in new frames.
The closeness he had to art was continued in his trawling through public spaces in London, including the Tate Museum. Here he wrote letters, and spoke highly of work by people one would expect him to love, including Breughel, Blake, and Bosch, but also such people as varied as Toulouse-Lautrec, Constable, and Turner. In addition to his formal, this informal education, suggests an explicit attempt to place himself in a northern European central tradition. Which makes his other experiences in England a little more interesting. He ended up hospitalized in England for severe depression, first as an inpatient in the Netherene asylum in Sussex, and later as an outpatient at Maudsley Institute, in London proper. During this time, he was under the care of Dr Edmund Adamson, who described his patient thusly: "When I first saw William, he was extremely withdrawn. His body was huddled up and he was nursing a small doll which he had made. He could hardly speak and it soon became obvious that he would not be able to mix with the other students." Over the next few years, the usual treatments for depressed patients occurred, including psychotherapy, and electro-convulsive therapy. Unlike many other Freudians at that time, the staff there, encouraged Kurelek in his continued religious training, and the artist assumed that his finding god, in London, first outside the hospital and later at the hospital itself, was the reason why earlier attempts at self harm failed, and why he didn't end up killing himself at all.
Adamson was an innovator in art therapy, and actively encouraged Kurelek to paint his way out of mental illness. In this set of circumstances, he painted dozens of work over the years he was at both hospitals, in addition to drawing and other crafts. Some of these paintings were the most dangerous of his career, paranoid, exhaustive canvases of all the worlds evils. They included Behold Man Without God, and the Maze.
The Maze is the most famous of Kurelek's England era canvases, ending up on a Van Halen album cover, and in books by Time Life, and being written extensively about in various medical journals. Looking at the Maze more closely, it is literally, about the self. A collection of images, are tightly contained in the skull of the artist. The images are as grotesque as the Bosch work that he saw at museums and other galleries. In fact, that the skull is resting in a landscape of dusty red bareness suggests very much that this is his personal Garden of Earthly Delights. There is also something incredibly domestic about the skull, with shelves, floors, walls and window. The combination of psycho-religious excess and domestic comfort would latter become the central theme in his work.
Kurelek wrote about the work, in depth, as was required by the talk therapy milieu of the time. He divided the painting into six sections: Home, Politics, Sex, Social Relations, Life and Death, the Outside World. The six sections were further divided, and they were an odd mix of urban sophistication and rural touchstones. The sex section has him being ripped apart by a bull racing to copulate with a cow, or the section of home, where he talks about a fear of starving, literally kicked into the snow by an uncaring father. But he also talks about slick highways, steamrollers, test tubes, and the fear of nuclear annihilation. He ends quoting TS Eliot: "The thorny, stony ground is a kind of T.S. Eliot Wasteland - spiritual and cultural barrenness: the pile of excrement with flies on it represents my view of the world and the people that live on it. The loosened red ribbon [linking the 2 halves of the skull] bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was untied by psychotherapy" The analysis, paranoia, and exhaustion, trying to find a place between rural openness and city suspicion is central to his work, and the second masterpiece he completed in the hospital, which also works in his new found religious obsession.
Behold Man Without God is as external a painting as The Maze is an interior painting. About the end of the world, there are four main sections, functioning vertically. It has the tower of Babel, an army of aborted foetuses, an ogre forcing a man to plough the fields, a rat with a human face, an orchestra, and other acts of spectacled violence. It has the same kind of iconography, and explanations that arrived at the same time as other artists at that time, the fury of Francis Bacon, the viciousness of George Grosz, and the intensity of Goya, but those all the usual touchstones of radical pacifism. What the most impressive thing about the work is the amount of information it manages to find in its small canvas. The strength of these two paintings, is not their madness, but the power of composition. His later religious paintings had the effect they did, because of his training and knowledge, rather then the subject matter.
The two paintings written about here, are central to Kurelek's understanding of the world, but it must be understood that he did not only paint religious work. Morley writes about a work that he did in the 1940s, "an amusing work from this period, featur(ing) the fourth floor baron from whom Bill sublet his room. In this kitchen scene, Mr. Meyer is shown reading a newspaper, one slipper on and one off"…she continues details include underwear drying on a line, a hot water bottle, peeling plaster, loose wallpaper ad a jar of marmalade labelled "Golden Garbage"…" His eye for detail, and his visual exactness then was not only limited to torture, but to the banal every day life.
Kurelek left the Netherene hospital in 1955, he would stay for a while in London, working with The Guild of Catholic Artists, staying in a boarding house of other Catholics, and taking the catechism. He would then travel, a bit in Europe: Turkey, Greece, Italy and eventually to India. Throughout this, he was painting and drawing. A work of his from India is in the National Gallery of Canada, a emaciated hand begging for food through the window of a bus.
When he returned to Toronto, he started attending the Catholic Welcoming Center, on Bloor Street. He meets his wife there. He would also get a job at the Av Issacs gallery, where he was the only person in the framing shop who knew how to gild, a skill learned from his time in Europe. At this point, he started to settle, diving his practice in two: The Potboilers, or work that was easily sold, mostly paintings of religious nostalgia, and the Propaganda paintings, often work that was about his fears of the end of the world. He also made several large series of paintings: 160 illustrating the crucifixion, about 60 about the End of Days, a dozen portraits each of Irish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Polish immigrants, hundreds of landscapes, still lives of his tools, images of Canadian patriotism, and various nativities. His profligacy was what might make him an outsider artist.
The fear mostly came from nuclear terror, and his several paintings of a world that ended with an atom blast, come across as almost cold war kitsch. He was the first citizen of Toronto to gain a permit to build a bomb shelter, but he ended up using it as a studio to paint in. Sometimes the work manages to be genuinely horrifying, depicting the real fears that permeated the cold war. In his 1965 canvas, This is the Nemesis, an atom bomb levels the city, with modernist tower blocks, and industrial detritus melting into lake Ontario, hundred of people on the ground%2 C with no place to flee. There is also a painting where he depicts a farmer fleeing the bomb, the painting has the title, No Time to Fetch His Hat—so they are not all serious.
There are other paintings of the end of the world that do not depict the end of the world, one of the strongest, and strangest was given to the Basillian Fathers of St Michael's college at the University of Toronto. Painted in 1962, and called the Rock, it is among the masterpieces of religious art, and has no real rivals in the 20th century. Demons swim through a tumultuous sea of blood, their spears held upwards, trying to catch souls floating down from the sky. In the middle, a pure white mountain, emblazoned with the papal seal, and the words of Christ, regarding Peter as the rock of the church. A black church rests miles from the sea, protected by the Holy Spirit as a dove.
Their were other moral concerns, that he held deeply. He was vehemently anti-abortion, and has had several canvases that suggest a horror of abortion, and these were done after he had his own children. His love and devotion to the, pushed his fear of not having any children, to the forefront. One, called Our My Lai or the massacre of Highland Creek, is a beautiful winter landscape, with perfect bare trees, and deep green pines. In the midst of the white snow, are garbage cans; at first one thinks they are pails of apples or other produce, something pastoral. They are filled with foetuses, overwhelming he landscape. He writes about the work, acknowledging that it is offensive to people who did not agree with him but "I know that unborn babies are human beings, I believe myself duty bound to speak for them because they cannot speak out for themselves…"
He also painted the mayor of Toronto David Crombie in a delightful painting of green grass, blue skies, and general recreation, but in the dark woods on the far corner of the painting, away from everything else, Crombie is feeding babies into a wood chipper. Talking to Crombie about this work, 30 years after it was painted, I asked him why he displayed it so proudly in his office. Crombie is an old leftist, for a women's right to choose. He talked warmly of the artist: "Bill saw what I was doing as mayor and he was quite laudatory, (but) this was a significant issue we disagreed on. He saw the mayoralty and the city in its totality", and that totality featured the good work that Crombie was, preserving the beaches, and the work that Kurelek thought was morally wrong, including abortions.
There are also works that do not depict the end of the world. The conservative aspect of his work, is mostly talked about, and sometimes has an intensity of vision, a sweet and gentle humanness that caused the New York Times to call him the American Breughel, and caused Tundra Books to publish two children's books of his work: A Prairie Boys Winter and a Prairie Boys Summer, which have been made into stage plays. These works are genuine, almost naïve depictions of life on the farm, and seem much happier then the images made earlier—including the Maze. All of the usual Canadian past times are depicted, including playing Fox and Geese, shinny hockey, feeding the cattle, making fence posts, and skating on bog ditches. Though they have a certain sentimental edge, the colours are rich and the compositions are strong. In Crows Leaving Before Winter, the entire left half of the canvas is empty, but for blue sky, a strong line of black birds leads the eyes to over the horizon, for example.
These are the kind of paintings that made Kurelek famous, and he was at the end of his life. He did a Christmas card for a few oil companies, was in every major collection in Canada, had work given as a gift to the Queen Mother, and toured throughout Europe, America, and finally Russia, He eventually sold work to the most famous collector in Canada, Ken Thomson and his auction at record is now more than a quarter of a million. People like him. But he is viewed as cute, as undifficult. I have concentrated on his religious work here, and have given a short shrift to his non apocalyptic, non religious work…I want to end this essay by talking about my two favourite works of his, one about God and one about his ordinary life.
He lived in the Toronto neighbourhood, the Beaches, raised his children and lived a good life there. Though he died at 50, he had an enormous amount of work behind him. One of the last things he did was an altar mural for Corpus Christi, the church he attended on Sundays. At the side, outside the usual view, the work was 10 feet high and 5 feet wide—it was gigantic. The main piece of the work was an illustration of the miracle of the loaves of fishes, one of his favourite moments in the life of Christ, and one that he worked with before. He transposed the miracle to his time, with four priests distributing communion while the congregation massed around him. The priests were those that worked in the church, and the congregation were members of Corpus Christi. All of them were together, in a radical egalitarianism. But around them, was colour that Kurelek should be so well known for. The green that only comes in the prairie about three days a year in may, a perfect sparkling blue, and a road way, with his communities, and the scarlet TTC street cars, and other details.
He loved Toronto, he loved that congregation, and you could tell that the loaves and fishes were such an important miracle for him, because no one would be hungry when it was still operational. On top of this mural, was a half circle, divided in three. Here, was Christ crucifying, being buried and rising again. These three small works, high up on the wall, have a loving hope. The sunrise at the rising of Christ, is so warm and enveloping and the crucifixion reminds me of Blind Willie McTells Dark is the Night, Cold is the Ground. Black as pitch, with no stars, and just he bare number of people needed to witness, it had a strong, stark power, away from the luridness of much Catholic art. It's hidden, and not often written about, but the work is a masterpiece of narrative economy, and Christian devotion.
The other work I wanted to mention was a grouping , called the Tool Paintings, work that I had never heard of, until I found a small book by poet and artist Ramsay Cook, who worked with William in the framing gallery of Isaac's gallery in Toronto. These works had a plainspoken intimacy, and had less going on then most of his work. They are simple, small works, that feature the tools that he used in the framing shop, a blacking brush, a tape dispenser, a finishing glove. The colours are perfect, the slightly sickly yellow of scotch tape, the peach of a rubber glove, the warmth of pine or elm, and all of them had one element, no extraneous details. They are virtuoso work, intensely connected to the daily practice, and very much about the working class permanence that he lived with.
Reading Cook's volume, is the same thing as talking to parishioners of Corpus Christi, Mayor David Crombie, the priest who taught at St Michael's, and others. Those who talked to Kurelek, outside of his Gallerist, alone, talked of someone shy, devoted, and loving. There was a warmth and devotion not only to the work, but to the people around him. The work that is sentimental, is because William Kurelek himself was sentimental, and the work that feared God with a prophetic urgency was because Kurelek wanted to save the world from the wrath of an angry God. Having both of them working together, is a gnarled root, central to understanding much about these aesthetics.
(originally posted on Tangerines in a Red Net Bag )
The top three images are from his Ukrainian Pioneer series.
Kurelek still bugs me.
Thanks Anthony! That's officially the longest post we've ever had on this blog. I thorougly enjoyed it, I've never read a profile of him and I've always been curious. I bet he's not the only prairie artist to work as both farmer and framer in his life!
L.M., why does Kurelek bug you?
I'm allergic to his cute paintings. (I had to look a long time to find images that didn't make me gag) I find most of his stuff agonizingly twee. It was only from Anthony that I found out about the darker works, so they make the cloying stuff ring even more false.
That makes sense. The darker stuff makes me like the cloying stuff better, but I see where you are coming from.
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