The week I arrived at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) to catch the touring survey “William Kurelek: The Messenger,” two things happened: Sidney Crosby returned to the National Hockey League to the enormous relief of beleaguered league brass, and Stephen Harper’s government channelled the pomp of past military glory by conducting a ceremony honouring Canada’s contribution to NATO’s Libya mission. Parliament Hill saw medals flash, oratory ballooning—“soldier for soldier, sailor for sailor,” said the PM, before adding, wisely, “airman for airman”—and eyes gazing skyward for the ceremonial fly-by involving a reconstituted Airbus CC-150 Polaris flanked by six CF-18 fighter-bombers. Wow. Double wow.
If you allow that the politics of art (like the art of politics) achieves critical mass when the timing is right, then Crosby and Harper, both masters of the comeback, nailed it. “The Messenger” survey—intelligent, consistently eye-opening, even game-changing, but a shade this side of great—nails it too; it is one of the more prescient reconstructions of a nearly discontinued reputation since Roald Nasgaard revisited Paul-Émile Borduas and co. in “The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1940–1960” at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in late 2009…or since the Spanish government helped to reinvent Salvador Dalí a decade ago on the occasion of his centenary.
The exhibition’s curators—Tobi Bruce of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the WAG’s Andrew Kear and Mary Jo Hughes of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria—understand that any historical repositioning of the famously prickly Kurelek would require, at the very least, a bridging of the seemingly insurmountable contradictions in his life, personality, thinking and reception. “The Messenger” is the first substantial Kurelek retrospective in 30 years, but the artist’s reputation as “a polarizing figure” remains fixed in our imaginations. With “his works often falling at either end of a very broad spectrum,” Bruce noted in an email to me, “finding works that bridged those polarities” shaped the curators’ selection process for the show.
Does one detect a whiff of anxiety in these words? If so, it matches the sense of exigency running through the exhibition of some 80 paintings and drawings, a hurry-up sensation that—intentionally, I’m sure—mirrors the nearly panicky drive that marked much of the painter’s mature years, during which he habitually slept only four or five hours a night. A flurry of drawings followed a three-week visit to his father’s village in Ukraine in the early 1970s. “Perhaps he drove himself so hard because he wanted to see this autobiography published in his life time,” his wife, Jean Kurelek, notes in the foreword to his autobiography, Someone With Me, which the artist finished in late July 1977, only months before his death from cancer.
“The Messenger”—which closed in Winnipeg on December 31, runs to April 29 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and opens on May 25 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria—is laid out in six broadly thematic sections. The first contains the painter’s most soul-searching and (to my mind) engaging period of work; the paintings from this time, such as Where Am I? Who Am I? Why Am I? (1953–54), distill the psychological trauma and suicidal tendencies Kurelek endured in the mid-1950s. Next, in a section the curators titled “The Rock,” are his sermonizing paintings, like All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Me (1970). Section three comprises mainly apocalyptic visions, such as Our World Today (1968), while the fourth area of thematic interrelations, dubbed “Big Lonely,” features a suite of Kurelek’s near-abstract landscapes, including Parable of the Sower (1963), where the artist allowed himself to be seduced by colour. With its many depictions of pioneer hardship, section five, “Belonging,” gives a final bit of polish to the artist’s diamond-hard conviction that life is an unending struggle. Part six, “The Workshop,” looks into the wrought-up interior spaces of Kurelek’s life and work, and houses the terrifying Frame Finisher’s Glove (1974), suggestive of a severed hand, palm up, with the fingers and thumb daubed black where blood should be and a pair of sharp nails jutting up menacingly through a bit of board.
In all, the exhibition is arranged to provide any Kurelek neophyte with a satisfying tour of the artist’s outer worlds, though not so much the inner. Biography is provided only where absolutely necessary—which is perhaps a good thing. Bruce explains that by “understanding [Kurelek’s] beliefs within broader narrative frames,” the curators “consciously aimed at positioning his paintings exploring nuclear annihilation in terms of world events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Yet even such compartmentalization runs the risk of inhibiting a broader curatorial quest to find a unifying factor in a body of work that is nearly unrivalled in its diversity, because—in the curators’ diverse efforts to find some overarching leitmotif running in Wagnerian fashion through Kurelek’s life and work—Bruce, Kear and Hughes sought perspectives from beyond painting and drawing to further their understanding of the artist’s of view of himself as the outsider and the other.
In the exhibition catalogue, Hughes maintains that “Kurelek’s life and work are very much framed within filmic or theatrical constructs.” The artist’s storyboard-like paintings for The Passion of Christ According to St. Matthew, a book prepared in 1975 for the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, reminded Brian Smylski, the late gallery director and a catalogue contributor, of the artist’s interest in the “cinematic process.” Meanwhile, Bruce surveys the “pivotal and nuanced role photography played in Kurelek’s practice.”
Indeed, Kurelek was curious about technology, as any farm boy would be, and he took an almost subversive delight in referencing modernity’s gizmos and iconography throughout his more pastoral settings. The Hope of the World (1965) features the Madonna House Apostolate, a retreat for Kurelek in Combermere, Ontario. A sturdy frame house with crimson shutters stands in the foreground of a lush, green Ontario landscape. But what appear to be loose flecks of dark-blue paint dotting the sky are meant to be read as a squadron of jets swooping down over the horizon to Toronto.
Born in 1927, a Great Depression child and the eldest in a large Ukrainian immigrant family, Kurelek was considered a weakling and a hapless disappointment by his overbearing father, Dmytro (Metro) Kurelek. He was also a victim of school bullying, he reveals in his autobiography, a monument of lacerating introspection that makes abundantly clear time and time again the degree to which Kurelek’s miserable childhood tinted his entire adult life. It’s as if the adult never wanted to forget—couldn’t forget—the unhappy child. (“There was about Kurelek the little boy, a studious, industrious little boy,” writes Brian Dedora, Kurelek’s assistant at the Isaacs Gallery, in his smart, insightful memoir With WK in the Workshop. “The way his hands would move: small strokes, a small world going on.”)
Metro Kurelek, self-reliant and “anti-authority,” according to his son, kept the family on the move, going from grain farming near Whitford, Alberta, to dairy farming near Stonewall, just north of Winnipeg, and finally settling in southern Ontario. Through it all, Kurelek felt entirely circumscribed by his father’s anger: “I was developing a kind of concentration camp mentality,” the artist notes in Someone With Me. Young Kurelek sought sanctuary wherever it presented itself: in schoolwork (he was almost always at the top of his class), in dreams of Ukraine nationalism, and in his art studies in Toronto and Mexico. In 1952, this sanctuary took on the very real dimensions of Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric facility in London, England, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, felt his first religious stirrings, and attempted suicide: “I used a sharp new razor blade to lacerate my face and arms,” he notes in his autobiography. This is where “The Messenger,” like Someone With Me, begins. At Maudsley, he produced The Maze (1953), the Bosch-referencing painting that ended up as album artwork for Van Halen’s Fair Warning. At Netherne Hospital, in Surrey, “at the end of a long walk up a hill,” he produced I Spit On Life (1953–54), a doggedly autobiographical depiction of compartmentalized anguish finished shortly before his attempted suicide in 1954.
By the late 1950s, Kurelek’s increasingly strident and didactic work reflected his conversion to a rigorously conservative form of Roman Catholicism. Ironically, by the early 1970s, his soaring reputation as an unchallenging landscape artist—at the time, he didn’t want to rock any boats—and genial if craggy storyteller for children garnered him a popular following matched by few other Canadian artists. By the 1970s, he was among the country’s leading authors when it came to sales.
Critics, however, were appalled by the rabid nuclear scare-mongering of apocalyptic works like Not Going Back to Pick up a Cloak; if They are in the Fields (1971), which shows a doughy white atomic cloud puffing up Pillsbury-style just behind the barn as a farmer, his hat lifting cartoonishly off his head, flees in horror. How 1950s is that? More disconcerting still for Kurelek’s detractors was his zeal for finding guilt where it was rarely found; he depicts the crucifixion during just another prairie harvest day in Dinnertime on the Prairies (1963), and on a dusty back road across the way from a happy southern Ontario get-together with In the Autumn of Life (1964). How 1450s is that? The critic Elizabeth Kilbourn dismissed Kurelek as “a theological tourist in never, never land” in the early 1960s. In today’s popular culture, one might be tempted to draw comparisons with Mel Gibson, another conservative Christian of enormous talent who displays an endless capacity to radically divide opinion and drive even his most die-hard supporters to drink.
After his discharge from Maudsley, Kurelek set out across Western Europe in what he calls “the last phase in my half-hearted search for an art school” in Someone With Me. Instead of school, though, he encountered “a few Bruegels and Bosches when I visited the galleries.” A few? The Medieval mind fascinated and tutored Kurelek, shaping his soul-searching; Kurelek’s doomsday religious zeal would have seemed positively benign in the 15th century. The European Masters shaped Kurelek’s practice, too: the violent kids’ play suggested in his King of the Castle (1958–59) grimly recalls the central image of Bosch’s Haywain triptych (1485–90), where greed and treachery turn a peasant scene violent. Kurelek may never have seen this Bosch, but he was drawing from the same source of outrage.
The decided shift in Kurelek’s pictorial thinking in the mid-1950s, away from perspective to flatness—a resolute flatness leading to the nearabstractions in some of his later landscapes, where fields and sky are slabs of monochromatic colour meeting at angles—came from revelations that late Medieval art awoke in him. The artist’s earlier painted scenes followed the familiar Canadian landscape tradition, suggesting forms and powers beyond their frame; later, though, they became all-inclusive and peoplepacked, with multiple tumbling mini-narratives. Kurelek, like his God, saw it all, wanted us to see it all at once, and wanted to paint it all in one place. He also learned from the dynamism of the late Middle Ages, when the multi-tasking artist had to serve humankind as well as God, and when the real (and imagined) landscape was filling with a newly emerging middle class, scrambling for success by engaging in a restless, anxious and increasingly godless pursuit of worldly wealth rather than heavenly salvation. (Kurelek himself discovered a version of this living in Winnipeg, London, and then Toronto.) Also prevalent in the late Gothic era’s energetic dynamic were painted scenes of the wanderer, the traveller or the pilgrim on the road, and this symbol made its way into Kurelek’s paintings, such as Farm Scene Outside Toronto (1963), where a dirt road bisects the composition, and the later Indian Hitchhiking from Saskatchewan Series #2 (1974).
Nagging at me before my visit to “The Messenger” was the notion that I was making a mistake—one that had little to do with visiting Winnipeg the very day winter set in. I’m inexplicably fond of Winnipeg. The WAG—its low-slung entrance suggesting a bunker or the maw of a grumpy dog—is sited on one of my favourite urban spaces in the country, just down the way from its 1920s-ish Beaux Arts–style Manitoba Legislative Building. The WAG’s interior spaces spiral up the spirits. But I worried that my prior knowledge of Kurelek’s biography (and his need for a routine of self-mortification worthy of a Franciscan penitent) might put a deceptive haze over everything I saw, like a film director using a sepia-hued filter to suggest nostalgia for past times. I had concerns that “The Messenger” would present itself in palimpsest-like fashion: one meaning after another emerging only by penetrating the paint to find words, then digging farther down through the writing to find the source of the pain that provided the original visual stimulus.
That’s always possible, of course. What strikes one throughout this exhibition, however, is the way it clarifies the ease, the absolute authority, the surety of vision—“he married belief and brush,” writes Bruce in the catalogue—and sometimes, oft-times, the hugely evident pleasure with which Kurelek drew together such thematically discordant elements. (Kurelek the kidder goes unnoticed often, particularly when he plays with his own reputation. “NO religion: NO Kurelek. And no Kurelek: No farm paintings,” he once warned.) In the catalogue, Kear uses the word “uncanny” to explain the “mysterious instance of disquieting interaction between two realities” in the artist’s work. But maybe it’s not so mysterious, not now in our web-savvy, 500-plus–channel universe, where heart-pounding religious fundamentalism is a click away from a live report from Kiev—or from Sid the Kid in full flight. In an age that conflates dozens of realities in an instant, William Kurelek is certainly ready for his close-up.