Painter William Kurelek is a bona fide Canadian-art icon, and, as with most icons, there are official and unofficial stories. Well known, of course, are his depictions of village life in the Ukraine (Kurelek was born in Alberta to Ukrainian Orthodox parents), and, correspondingly, his canvases of immigrant farming life in Canada, several of which became endearing illustrations for his 1970s children’s books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer.
Less recognized, perhaps, is the tumult Kurelek experienced between 1952 and 1959, when he was living in England and was hospitalized for a period of time to undergo treatment for emotional problems and depression. Far from creatively fallow, this period was a turning point, resulting in the production of several astonishing works highlighted in a new Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition entitled “The Messenger.” It’s the first significant Kurelek survey in 30 years, travelling to Hamilton and Victoria in 2012, and will likely change many widely held prejudices against Kurelek—a two-time art-school dropout often misconstrued as homespun, even naïve.
The titles of the works give a good, startling impression of what’s in store. I Spit on Life, a major painting from the time of Kurelek’s hospitalization, is a solemn, curdled view of humanity, with scenes of bullying, impalement, theft, suicide and incarceration, all presented in what appear to be recesses of a cave, but which also recall decaying flesh. It is a grand work in the tradition of Bosch (whose works Kurelek had just seen while travelling Europe in 1952), and it presages Philip Guston’s more renowned figurative experiments by over a decade. (A like-minded work, The Maze, later achieved notoriety when a detail of it was featured on the cover of Van Halen’s 1981 album Fair Warning; clearly Kurelek’s output during this period is as Pop as it is profound.) This is the Nemesis achieves this effect even more, perhaps—it’s an aerial view of an explosion in a city that is screamingly apocalyptic.
The WAG survey, which spans all the artist’s moods and periods—including his placid, pastoral ones—also draws attention to Roman Catholicism, to which Kurelek converted during his psychiatric convalescence. (Fascinatingly, two of Canada’s greatest painters, Kurelek and Jack Chambers, were both Roman Catholic converts.) The resulting vision is, for all its variances, consistently romantic—in the bold tradition of William Blake, in which there is a lament for humanity’s depravity, a tenacious celebration of its flashes of purity, and an almost fanatical faith in the artist’s ability to depict and transcend both through mystical insight.