William Kurelek 1927 – 1977

Manitoba Party 1964 by William Kurelek

This is how a friend of mine introduced me to William Kurelek‘s art:

“His work is a mixture of everything you love! Dark religious themes… apocalyptic imagery inspired by the cold war… being Ukrainian… rural farm life…”

It’s a pretty accurate description, for starters, of his work (and of things I love), although Kurelek cut a much wider swath than that.

Self-Portrait as a young man 1950 by Willaim Kurelek

Perceptions of him as a naïve loner are likely amiss, a result of his known battle with depression/anxiety and his paranoid view that the rapture was just around the corner. He had plans in the 60s to transform his workspace into a bomb shelter.

But his paintings imagine so many aspects of Canadian life over a century, reflecting a man that was outward-looking, well-travelled (Mexico, Europe, all of Canada) and a keen student of art history.

A major retrospective of his work, dubbed The Messenger, travelled from Winnipeg to Hamilton at the beginning of the year, and now resides at The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until Sept. 3.

Prairie Children Building A Snow Fort by William Kurelek

There are two recurring themes in much of his work: Canadiana and religious symbology.

His depictions of earth and sky, God and farming life in Canada, in series such as: “An Immigrant Farms in Canada”, and “The Ukrainian Pioneer Women in Canada”, detail the pleasant, labourious and pastoral times of new Canadians.

In such paintings, his use of bright stark colors remind me of Vincent Van Gogh‘s takes on rural life – although Kurelek has a much less impressionistic style.

Those same bright colors made much of Kurelek‘s work stimulating child’s fare. His two dozen children’s books would fit well beside some of the equally Canadian and nostalgic work of Roch Carrier (The Sweater).

I Spit on Life, c.1953-1954 by William Kurelek (c) The Adamson Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This Is The Nemesis by William Kurelek

Kurelek‘s work can be accessible, with no major interpretation required to enjoy it. But that work is contrasted by his surreal, disturbing, prophetic visions of the world’s ultimate and tortuous demise, often at the hands of a nuclear bomb. The titles of works like I Spit on Life and This is the Nemesis say enough.

Born Ukrainian Orthodox, later converting to Catholicism, his work also explores religious identity, influenced by the old Orthodox iconography and, following his conversion, the renaissance masters.

The Passion of Christ Series, early 1960s by William Kurelek

In The Passion of Christ series, each solemn painting depicts a verse from the New Testament book of St. Matthew, which tells of Jesus‘ unpleasant trek with the cross.

Go see the Kurelek exhibition because it’s apparently impossible to get your hands on the beautiful book that accompanies it. A Winnipeg Art Gallery employee told me: “We’re sold out, and it was a one-time print run, so it’s not being printed again, ever, ever, ever.” Yes, she actually said “ever” three times.

-Old Scratch