Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The man, the message

In-depth WAG retrospective explores Manitoba artist William Kurelek, who saw his paintings as serving God

  • Print

He was a farm boy with deep Ukrainian roots, known for nostalgic paintings of children playing in snow and immigrants working the land.

His award-wining books A Prairie Boy's Winter and A Prairie Boy's Summer are iconic for many Canadians, especially Manitobans.

But artist William Kurelek was also a tormented soul who, as a young man, descended into mental illness, lost his faith and attempted suicide. He emerged a devout Roman Catholic, driven to warn his fellow humans of the folly of a godless, materialistic life.

Kurelek was born in 1927 in Alberta, but grew up on a farm near Stonewall and completed high school and university in Winnipeg, later settling in Toronto. He had a troubled relationship with his immigrant father, who expected him to become a doctor or lawyer.

He always considered Stonewall his spiritual home as an artist. Our province inspired some of his best-loved works, such as the charming Manitoba Party, depicting a rural feast in an orange tent.

Kurelek only lived to age 50 -- he died in 1977 -- but poured out more than 2,000 paintings. He likened himself to a medieval manuscript illuminator who served God every time he lifted his brush.

"He saw his art as communicating messages that related to the Christian religion," says Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and co-curator of the landmark exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger.

The show of more than 80 significant works, spanning Kurelek's entire career from 1950 to 1977, formally opens at the WAG tonight as part of the free Nuit Blanche celebration and runs to Dec. 31.

Jointly organized by the WAG, Art Gallery of Hamilton and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (the partner institutions will show it next year), it's the first Kurelek retrospective in more than 25 years, and the largest ever mounted.

Exhaustive scholarly research and detective work to locate paintings took six years on the part of Kear and co-curators Tobi Bruce (Hamilton) and Mary Jo Hughes (Victoria).

Kurelek's 1950s atheist period, when he spent two years in British mental hospitals, produced macabre, nightmarish works with titles such as I Spit on Life. His 1953 masterwork The Maze (depicting the anguish inside his own head, used on the cover of Van Halen's rock album Fair Warning), was too fragile for this show, but a later version of it is here.

Once he started showing at a Toronto gallery in 1960, Kurelek's dealer convinced him to alternate between accessible shows of rural scenes and didactic shows of Christian paintings.

But even in the bucolic paintings, Kear notes, a dark warning often lurks. There is cruelty, for instance, in the children's games he depicts. Kurelek was at his best, the curators argue, when he "successfully bridged the pastoral and the prophetic."

In the painting Material Success, a prosperous family enjoys its appliance-loaded kitchen while in the distance, an apocalyptic bomb erupts. In the final painting of the acclaimed series The Ukrainian Pioneer, an immigrant farmer stands proudly in his wheat field, but far away there's a mushroom cloud.

The show catalogue, a glossy hardcover book, describes Kurelek as one of Canada's most popular, yet most enigmatic, 20th-century artists. He has been called "Canada's Norman Rockwell" and "Canada's Cornelius Krieghoff," but both comparisons are too narrow for his diverse and contradictory body of work, Kear says.

His illustrative narrative style was out of step with the abstraction that ruled the art world of the 1960s and '70s. He was not a major artist internationally, but that doesn't mean he had no impact beyond Canada.

In 1962, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art was invited to Toronto to select one contemporary Canadian work for the MOMA collection.

Modernist abstract painters like Jack Bush and Harold Town were dominating the scene. Yet the expert chose Kurelek's Hailstorm in Alberta, in which a lone farmer cowers during a merciless storm. It's now on loan from MOMA for the WAG show.

"His work is extremely polarizing," says Kear. "You had critics praising him from day one, and then you had critics who could not get beyond being hit over the head with a message.

"The three curators who worked on this found ourselves torn that way, too. You keep getting pulled into the works. You know you're being preached at, but there's something about the work itself that stands out."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

 

Art preview

William Kurelek: The Messenger

  • Winnipeg Art Gallery
  • To Dec. 31

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 G1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Wasylycia-Leis says Bowman and Ouellette ran a good campaign

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.
  • Two baby tigers were unveiled at the Assiniboine Park Zoo this morning, October 3rd, 2011. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you support Pimicikamak First Nation's protest against Manitoba Hydro?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google