A farmer stands in a vast wheat field that stretches out behind him across the huge canvas to a distant horizon and a crystalline, cloudless blue sky: The Ukrainian Pioneer painting is on display at a Victoria, British Columbia, art gallery as part of an ambitious retrospective on Canada’s great landscape painter William Kurelek.
Wait a moment: That sky is not quite cloudless. Tucked neatly into the corner is a mushroom cloud.
“What makes his art so great and so fascinating is that you can look at it on so many different levels,” says Mary Jo Hughes, co-curator of the show, which has toured Canada for two years and has one left to go. “You can say, ‘Wow that’s really beautiful to look at.’ But then you step closer and discover things.”
Kurelek’s message is the one that saved his life: salvation in Jesus Christ — and salvation from the Final Judgment, which Kurelek, whose career blossomed at the peak of the Cold War, saw coming in the form of an atomic war. It seems apropos that the show is called “The Messenger.”
Until Sept. 3, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Americans from the Pacific Northwest will be able to get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study one of Canada’s most popular, enigmatic — and Catholic — painters.
At the heart of Kurelek’s enduring appeal, says Hughes, is the sharp contrast between Kurelek’s tributes to Canada’s immigrant peoples — hard at work in the fields and forests or hard at play in haystacks, snow piles and country weddings — and extravagant renditions of Ontario cities moments after a nuclear strike and his quirky parables showing Christ lamenting modern sinfulness and extravagance.
Meticulous craftsmanship, a love of nature, and a dark vision of human depravity held at bay by a deeply Catholic faith in Christ are all hallmarks of Kurelek’s art. And so was a disciplined commitment to his craft that saw him produce 2,000 to 3,000 paintings, most of which he framed himself, before his premature death at age 50 in 1977.
The show provides plenty to see for fans who made Kurelek a bestselling author in the final years of his life, with such books as Kurelek’s Vision of Canada, Kurelek Country and O Toronto.
“He still has wide appeal,” said Hughes, noting that the show is the gallery’s most popular this year.
For Kurelek, his work offered a Christian reflection on the world, often with Christ literally located in the landscape. Even though his colorful ethnic works are those he is most closely identified with, he once said, “One’s culture or nationality is not the most important thing in the world. Human beings are. The primary activity of each individual, then … is the saving of his or her soul and helping others to save theirs.”
One of his most striking paintings, O Toronto, shows Christ standing on the steps of the old City Hall, with Christmas shoppers streaming by, oblivious.
In Farm Scene Outside Toronto, a tidy farmhouse and barn sit centrally in the frame, while in the foreground sits a loose jumble of farm junk. A closer look reveals Christ’s hands emerging from the debris pile and his crown of thorns lying at its edge. The crown of thorns can also be found in the corner of Light Trading Day, Toronto Stock Exchange, an otherwise neutral depiction of the stock exchange (which was loaned to the Victoria show by a major stock brokerage). “Probably they don’t know it [the crown] is in there,” notes curator Hughes.
In his most powerful works, Kurelek pulls no punches. In Cross Section of Vinnitsia in the Ukraine, 1939, half of the canvas shows people of all ages at play in a well-landscaped city park. But there are soldiers patrolling on one side, busts of Stalin and Lenin on the other, and below the ground is a mass grave jammed with corpses — a reference to Stalin’s purges and Ukraine’s great famine, the Holodomor, which saw millions starved to death by the dictator’s policies. To hammer home the point, the whole canvas is behind prison bars that are part of the frame.
His O Toronto book alternates between the homely and the appalling. Our My Lai, the Massacre of Highland Creek, is a meticulous landscape of one of Toronto’s ravines after a snowfall, with a Toronto hospital looming in the background. In the foreground: aborted babies.
Kurelek’s message was often deemed harsh by critics and buyers — and unprofitable by his lifelong agent, Toronto gallery owner Avrom Isaacs. Isaacs worked out a deal with Kurelek, notes Hughes: “They would do two shows a year — one could be heavy-handed Christian stuff, but the other had to be the easily digestible, more saleable stuff.”
Kurelek’s early life was harsh: harsh enough, in fact, to render him clinically depressed for several years in his 20s before he found faith — and relief — in Jesus Christ.
Bullied at school and derided at home on the farm for his impractical, artistic ways and physical weakness, Kurelek would lastingly remember his father tucking him in bed with the derisive message, “When you wake up, be a boy.”
The darker side of his childhood, the grinding poverty of the early years and the parental indifference would ultimately be displayed in his art. But before that, it emerged in the profound dislocation he felt after leaving home and dropping out of several arts schools.
In England, he became suicidal and consigned himself to a mental hospital because of its pioneering use of art therapy. Ironically, the hospital promoted abstract art, since this was deemed more appropriate for free expression of mental anguish. But Kurelek produced works that are painful in their alienation and painstaking in their realism. One typical example was titled Help Me; Please Help Me; Please Help Me — Please Help.
Hope in Christ
In the hospital that same year, 1957, Kurelek met an occupational therapist who shared Catholic literature with him. In these works, he discovered his life had a purpose beyond his art. He began attending Mass. Soon he was baptized.
In describing how this impacted his gloomy view of life, he recalls his father’s own bleak comment: “If you weep over the ills of the world, you will wash your eyes away.”
But, Kurelek said, “I find I cannot harden myself according to my father’s advice. … After my conversion to the Catholic Christian faith, I became all the more conscious of this world as a ‘vale of tears.’ But now there was a significant difference: I know that God has the whole, wide world in his hands — and so good will triumphs over evil in the end.”
Back in Canada, he married, settled in Toronto and got a job as a framer at the Isaacs Gallery. It was there, in 1960, that he had his first show. His popularity grew, and he expanded his output to meet demand, while insisting on making and showing his religious art. Much of the proceeds from his popular work went to children’s and Christian charities around the world.
The apocalyptic message in much of his art appalled critics almost as much as the apparent commercialism in the rest of them. One dismissed him as “a theological tourist in Never Never Land.”
“His faith gave him a purpose to his whole life, and it gave him a purpose to his art,” Hughes says. “And he needed that. He was a very intense, thoughtful person. He thought about everything that he did. Everything had to have a purpose.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.