William Kurelek CM, RCA (1927 – 1977)
William Kurelek was a painter, illustrator, print maker, graphic artist and author. He was born in Whitford, Alberta (near Edmonton), and subsequently lived in Stonewall, Manitoba (1934 - 1949), Vinemount, Ontario (1949 - 1952), London, England (1952 - 1959) and Toronto, Ontario (1959 -1977) where he died.
His mediums were oil, graphite, colored pencil, watercolor, ink, gouache, lacquer, ballpoint pen, woodblock, acrylic, lithography and mixed mediums (usually pen and colored pencil). His subjects were religion, the bible, ethnicity (Ukrainian), social commentary, farm life, family life, allegory, genre, portraits, still life, figures in landscape and William Kurelek. All of his works combined compelling aesthetics with a message or lesson. His styles included Realism, Surrealism, and Trompe l’oeil (before 1959). Whether by intent or not there is a similarity in subjects and style to the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel (see both in AskART), both of whom are stated influences. Quote: "Some critics really get at me because my subject often is story telling or moralizing. But, you know, I do agree with them 100%. Subject is not what makes art." - William Kurelek.
In 1949 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. However his formal education in fine art was limited to 6 months at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto (1949 -1950) and 5 months at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel, Mexico (1950 -1951). He is considered self taught. It is thought that treatment and hospitalization in London (1953 -1955) for depression (1) which involved art therapy, and resulted in his masterpiece The Maze (1953) (2); and, his conversion to Roman Catholicism (1957) were the greatest influences on his style and chosen subjects.
In addition to England his travels have included Turkey, Israel, Greece, Italy (1958); Cape Dorset, Baffin Island (1968); India, South Africa, Hong Kong (1969); and the Ukraine (1977).
His first group exhibitions were with the Royal Academy in England (1956 - 58). His first major group show in Canada was the 1961 Women’s Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto exhibition (since 1966 - the Art Gallery of Ontario) (3). He was included in the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) Biennials in 1963 and 1965, as well as its “Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art” show in 1967; and in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts “Images of the Saints” exhibition (1965).
The venues for his solo shows and retrospectives include his dealer the Isaacs Gallery (1960, 62, 63, 64, 66, 68, 74); the Edmonton Art Gallery (1965 and 1970); the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1965); the Yellowstone Art Center, Montana (1967); the Art Gallery of Ontario (1970); the Burnaby Art Gallery, B.C. (1973) and in 1992 the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa).
Estimates of his life time production range from 2,000 to 10,000 works. In 1977 Kurelek said ' that because one of the reasons he painted was to support his family, every once in a while he would take a field trip to a particular locale or a hotel room, and paint up to 3 pictures a day in saleable subjects and sizes'. He referred to these as "pot-boilers". Which would give some credence to the high end of the production range. While the term "pot boilers" sounds cynical he defended the works commenting that "even the smallest thumbnail sketch of Rembrandt is chock-full of good art." (4)
His works are in many private and public collections. Some of the public collections are the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba); McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario); the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario); the University of Guelph (Ontario); the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (Oshawa, Ontario); the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario); the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Museum London (Ontario); the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Museum of Modern Art (NYC). The National Gallery of Canada has 21 Kurelek works in its collection. The Niagara Falls Art Gallery (Niagara Falls, Ontario) has the largest collection of Kurelek materials in the country. In addition to his 160 piece masterwork The Passion of Christ according to St Matthew it houses his personal artifacts including his library, files, drawings, catalogues, magazines and newspaper articles.
His awards and honors include the Order of Canada (CM), one of the country’s highest honors; an honorary doctorate from Windsor University (Ontario), both in 1976; and two New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Book Award’s for A Prairie Boy's Winter (1973) and Lumberjack (1974). He was also elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
He has written and illustrated 11 books: A Prairie Boy's Winter (1973), Kurelek's Canada (1973), The Polish Canadians (1973), Jewish Life In Canada (1973), O Toronto (1973), Lumberjack (1974), A Prairie Boy's Summer (1975), The Passion of Christ (1975), A Northern Nativity (1976), The Last of the Arctic (1976) and Fields (1976). His autobiography, completed shortly before he died, is titled Some One With Me (1980).
There are three Kurelek biographies; Kurelek – A biography (1986), by Patricia Morley, published by MacMillan of Canada (338 pgs, B&W); William Kurelek – The Suffering Genius (1996), by Michael Ewanchuk, published by Steinbach, Manitoba (124 pgs); and Breaking Free - The Story of William Kurelek (2002), by May Ebbitt Cutler, published by Tundra Books (32 pgs, illustrated by Kurelek).
There are also three film documentaries about him: Kurelek (1967); The Maze – The Story of William Kurelek (1970); and Pacem En Terris (1971).
(1) One of the motivations for going to London was to seek treatment for his chronic depression. In fact, he researched hospitals while still in Canada and checked into one the day after he arrived in London. Source: His autobiography Someone With Me (1980).
(2) The Maze is on permanent display in the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives (London, England) in an area titled “Patients For Whom Art Contributed To Recovery From Mental Illness”. Works by Louis Wain, Richard Dadd, Thomas Hennell, and Charles Sims (1873-1928) (see all in AskART) are also in the Hospital’s collection; though some in areas indicating less success with recovery. The hospital’s history goes back to 1247 A.D. Its names through the centuries have included St. Mary Bethlehem, Bethlehem Hospital, Bethlem Hospital and Bedlam.
(3) “Alfred H. Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was invited to the opening. He was offered, a painting of his choosing, by the committee, for his gallery. He chose one entitled Hailstorm in Alberta by William Kurelek…” This is considered to be the beginning of his recognition as a major artist in Canada. (See pg. 557 in Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art (1977), by A.H. Barr Jr.) – Quote from - Colin S. MacDonald, A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974).
(4) Source: Contemporary Artists (1977), by Colin Naylor and Genesis P-Orridge, St Martins Press, (pg 518).
Prepared and contributed by M.D.Silverbrooke