Sunday, February 26, 2012

William Kurelek

I've always associated this artist with childhood innocence and fun, the bright colours popping against the snow.  Images so vivid you can almost hear the laughter and shouts of  the children at play. When Rob and I visited the Hamilton Art Gallery yesterday to view a retrospective of Kurelek's work, we were introduced to a whole other expression of his talents.

Kurelek's biography shows he was a restless soul. He left the prairies, went to the Ontario College of Art, and then set off for England.  Alone and lonely, in 1954 he attempted suicide.  He was hospitalized,  underwent a series of shock treatments, and was encouraged to paint as therapy.  Along the way, this avowed atheist converted to Catholicism.  His faith helped him deal with his mental anguish, and he remained a devout Catholic until his death in 1977.

Anxiety seemed his constant companion.   He went through a period in the sixties where he seemed consumed by the threat of nuclear war.  One painting, called 'The Good Life" depicts a three-generation Ukrainian family inside their Prairie home,  enjoying all the modern day amenities but completely oblivious of the nuclear cloud in the distance. 

Artist's studio on Balsam Avenue Toronto
While living on Balsam Avenue in Toronto (just a few kilometers from where I live now), he started building a bomb shelter in his basement.  This dark, cramped space was where he painted many of his later works.

Viewing the paintings I was struck by their beautiful frames, and then discovered Kurelek had done much of this work himself.  He'd learned the trade while living in London and then worked at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto from 1960-1970, earning his living framing fine works of art.

One of the paintings, Reminiscences of my Youth, pictured above, takes framing to a whole new level.  The bottom portion shows Kurelek as a young man in a dark room, despondent that the happy days of his childhood will never return.  In the gallery I was able to crouch down and read the handwritten note on his bedside table, mourning those days were "gone forever".  I wonder if that was his suicide note?

Having been introduced to a more serious and dark side of Kurelek, I appreciate his portraits of childhood and the light in his canvases even more than before.  The aurora borealis is a triumph of light over darkness.  Chasing fireflies in a night-time forest feels like an act of devotion and hope.

Maze (1953 - 1954)
this was painted as part of his therapy
it is a cross-section of his brain & skull
Glimmering tapers 'round the day's dead sanctities (1970)
somewhat depressing title
click image to expand - this is beautiful!
but this is also one of his handmade frames

Trees (circa 1970)
Chasing fireflies in this night-time forest feels like an act of devotion and hope


Kurt said...

Me like.

The Clever Pup said...

I love "Reminiscences" which is very hard to spell and is normally housed at the AGO and is one of my "must sees" when I'm there. He has a wonderful painting of people busy in the snow on Balsam Ave. too. I found it online somewhere. I can't remember where it lives.

Diane said...

The Balsam Avenue painting was on display in Hamilton as well, it was called , 'Looking the Other Direction' or something like that. When I first saw it, it reminded me of a Lawrence Harris... until I examined the faces on the subjects, and that is Kurelek all the way...