By Malin Jordan
William Kurelek is making a comeback. After being forgotten because of the artistic snobbery at the height of the abstract art movement, it was inevitable that a man with so much talent would rise again.
Kurelek, born in Alberta in 1927 to Ukrainian immigrants, transformed himself through his paintings. In turn, his work transforms the viewer, in much the same way he painted, by transporting their minds, often against their will, into a realm of passion, morality, truth, despondency, decay, and hope.
Well-known for "The Maze" (1953), a work depicting his beleaguered mind, Kurelek early in his life was a tortured soul, an atheist in art therapy at a mental institution in England. Most of his darkest work comes from this depression-filled period.
However, the fundamental turning point in his life and career occurred when Kurelek became Catholic. Through his conversion he cast off the shackles of his torture and found hope and strength in God. It also became his most prolific period.
For the next 20 years of his life (he died from cancer in 1977), he completed more works than before conversion, and some of his most powerful. These included his incredible 160-panel, "The Passion of Christ According to St. Matthew" (1963), along with the famous "Ukrainian Pioneer" series.
But I remember Kurelek from my youth, reading his children's books, A Prairie Boy's Summer and A Prairie Boy's Winter. I didn't grow up on the Prairies; I'm a Kootenay boy. But the imagery in those books spoke to me of vast spaces my mind couldn't then comprehend. What could a place be without mountains or deep green lakes? But his beauty spoke to me, nonetheless.
Many of his paintings are "Canadian icons" written on masonite about a tough land carved out by pioneer Ukrainians and others. He transported Catholicism to the masses as he re-imagined morality and biblical stories for a new audience, always teaching as he painted, always making social commentaries. A staunch pro-lifer, he also painted anti-abortion scenes that drew the hackles of Torontonians who protested against his exhibitions in the '70s.
Like the arduous task laid out in "Ukrainian Pioneer" (No.3) - where a family of homesteaders are squeezed between a river and a tree-stuffed wilderness while the father raises his arm as if to say, "Here is where we will build our house" - Kurelek's work succeeds in showing that hard work and faith-filled hope are intertwined in life.
Now a new exhibition is breathing life back into his passion. "The Messenger," showing at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, is exhibiting 85 of his works.
The show covers most of Kurelek's career. There are early pieces from that despondent time in England where, in therapy, he produced disturbing paintings including "The Maze" and "I Spit on Life" (1954).
The show also has the six panels from the "Ukrainian Pioneer" series.
Critics have assailed him as barbarous (most notably for his pro-life paintings) and have called his work unpleasant - one even suggesting no one will like the new exhibit and its pieces.
But modern critics are handcuffed by their lack of understanding of philosophy, religion, and culture. It's hard for secular automatons to know passion. They often search out lukewarm paintings that represent abstract shapes - from where they can roll out lukewarm thoughts and ideas concerning lukewarm humanity.
But Kurelek is the master of hot and cold. He painted first as a mentally tormented atheist and then as a hope-filled Roman Catholic, always exploring the human condition. And while pleasant distraction in safe, happy work has its merits, what is joy without sorrow? What is pleasure without pain?
Kurelek offers both sides in his work. His scenes of simple Prairie life are intense snapshots, minimalistic renditions, beautiful in their simplicity, ever mindful of a moral lesson and never shying away from raw emotion.
Kurelek is as important a Canadian painter as any other. His amazing art shouldn't be dismissed because of the dark imagery of his tortured youth, or the moral teaching of his conversion period. His art speaks to children, adolescents, and adults, something few artists are ever able to achieve.
I'm going to see the exhibit in Victoria and I'm excited. Kurelek was a visionary in the true sense. He saw pain, suffering, joy, and hope and he recorded it with passion. Kurelek was a messenger of hope and fear, and of passion and morality. The show should not be missed.
"William Kurelek: The Messenger" shows at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until Sept. 3. More information on the exhibit and his body of work is available at kurelek.ca.