This week I went to see the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I knew William’s work from his delightful books that catalogue life on the prairies in the mid 1900’s. This summer I had seen a Kurelek series at the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon that depicted what life was like on the prairies for pioneer women. I was also familiar with Kurelek’s Northern Nativity in which he imagines the Christ Child coming in the present day to the north. He depicts the Christmas story happening in places like a fisherman’s hut or a cowboy’s barn.
My favorite Kurelek paintings were a series I saw at an art gallery in Ottawa that showed the experience of immigrants from the Ukraine traveling to Canada,
and becoming successful farmers. I think I liked this Kurelek series so much, because my grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine who helped to build communities and establish farms on the Canadian prairies.
In all the work of Kurelek I’d seen, he’d painted an almost idyllic picture of life on the prairie. From what I knew of Kurelek he affirmed life, faith, community and family. I hadn’t seen Kurelek’s dark side till I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s exhibit about his life’s work. In his painting The Maze –which shows Kurelek’s open decapitated skull– Kurelek depicts his childhood as anything but happy. In this scene from The Maze, Kurelek’s father is violently kicking him out the door into the cold and snow.
This haunting painting Lord That I May See was easier to understand when I read in the Kurelek biography that William was in a psychiatric hospital for four years and tried to commit suicide twice.
He credits his conversion to Roman Catholicism with helping him deal with his mental problems. His new spiritual devotion led him to create many apocalyptic paintings warning about the end of the world, like This is the Nemesis above, which is the feature piece the Winnipeg Art Gallery is using to promote the Kurelek exhibit. Kurelek truly believed the end of the world was imminent and built a nuclear blast shelter in his basement during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kurelek’s fervent faith led him to create 160 images showing the Passion of Christ as it is recorded in Matthew. As you can see Kurelek does not hesitate to show the gory reality of Christ’s torture and crucifixion.
My visit to the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery helped me learn so much more about William Kurelek, including the fact that he had a very dark side, and some troubling visions of life and the future of the world. If anything this makes me appreciate his happy, almost poetic paintings of the prairie even more.
I’ll end this post with the painting of Kurelek’s I think I liked the best from the exhibit. It wasn’t terrifying like some of the paintings. It wasn’t all sweetness and light either. It really made you think. It’s called No Grass Grows on the Beaten Path.