Early in the 1980s Mary McLaughlin, a colleague of mine at the Mutual Life of Canada, persuaded the CEO to have the company sponsor a major exhibition by the Canadian painter William Kurelek. Her success in that effort was far from being a slam dunk.
Thirty years on this sort of sponsorship may not seem unusual with companies like Sun Life of Canada (which two decades later took over Mutual Life) being active corporate sponsors of cultural activity across Canada. Back then however such corporate activity was not so common, especially at Mutual Life and particularly when it involved a painter like Kurelek whose paintings' style and content were a long way from traditional in this country.
Mary, a former press secretary to federal Liberal cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, was an able political player in the corporate context although I recall some executive grumbling sotto voce about the Kurelek sponsorship. The national tour of the Kurelek exhibition had more than a dozen stops and made a significant contribution to raising Kurelek's artistic profile. Although a prolific painter he had died at age 50 in 1977.
Three Canadian galleries have worked together to organize and mount the first major Kurelek special exhibition since then. It is called "William Kurelek: The Messenger".
The three co-curators have done an impressive job in selecting and then gathering the more than 80 paintings in this exhibition: Andrew Kear of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Tobi Bruce of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Mary Jo Hughes of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. They have worked for several years preparing a fascinating representation of Kurelek's work.
This was no easy task given the various periods and themes of his life, from his prairie boyhood in Manitoba to his time in England during the 1950s during which he received psychiatric treatment and became an expert picture frame maker (he made frames for many of his own paintings, in some cases extending his art onto the frame itself). His 1957 conversion from atheism to an obsessive Roman Catholicism married to an apocalyptic vision of the Cold War was another major influence as was his focus on his Ukrainian family heritage.
Kurelek's paintings included but were by no means limited to explicitly religious works like the 160 panels of "The Passion of Christ". But religious references were often included in seemingly non-religious paintings like the Virgin Mary at the base of a huge snow-covered prairie haystack on which children play.
Or a 1963 painting he entitled "Dinnertime on the prairies": empty of people, fence posts lying along the edge of a ploughed field, part way along is Jesus Christ on a cross. What was Kurelek's explanation of this painting? On the label for the back of the painting he wrote that "this is an intuitive painting. I was wondering how to paint a Western religious painting and suddenly this idea came to me so it is open to interpretation. The meaning I put on it is that sin, which crucifies Christ over and over, can just as easily happen on a summer day on a Manitoba farm as anywhere else. The farmer and his sons doing the fencing may have had an argument just before dinner or one of them enjoyed a lustful thought. Or got an idea how to revenge himself on neighbours, etc."
The Globe and Mail critic, in his review of this exhibition , called Kurelek "among the most bizarre painters this country has produced". The Winnipeg Free Press reviewer of the exhibition's opening referred to Kurelek having been called "Canada's Norman Rockwell" and "Canada's Cornelius Krieghoff".
Such labels are attractive shorthand to use in referring to a painter who indeed was a very different sort of painter and did not fit into prevailing Canadian fashions in art. However the exhibition's co-curators are right when they characterize such labels and comparisons as being too narrow for Kurelek's diverse body of work, comprised as it is of more than 3,000 paintings and drawings as well as several books.
William Kurelek has long been one of my favourite painters, a smallish group which also includes inter alia the Frenchman James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) and the Venetian Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697 - 1768). Aside from their being painters all three have something else in common: a period of artistic creativity spent away from their respective homelands in England. Kurelek's painting, like Tissot's (but in Tissot's case it happened after the death of his English mistress) came to place a heavy emphasis on religious themes.
Critical references to Kurelek as a 'prairie Hieronymous Bosch' or a 'flatland Pieter Brueghel' are facile but not really apt. His art reflects the peculiar troubles, contradictions and obsessions of a life spent mainly in Canada, especially on the prairies, and made real through his brilliant and unusual artistry.
A visit to this special exhibition of Kurelek's work is a truly rewarding experience. The exhibition's time in Winnipeg is past but it is currently at the Art Gallery of Hamilton through April 28, 2012 and then completes its three city schedule at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from May 25 to Sept. 3, 2012.
Sources and references:
1. The Kurelek special exhibiton, "The Messenger" has its own website: www.kurelek.ca
2. Art Gallery of Hamilton -- www.artgalleryofhamilton.com
3. Art gallery of Greater Victoria -- www.aggv.ca
4. The Niagara Falls Art Gallery [Ontario] houses a William Kurelek art collection and the artist's personal papers and library -- www.niagarafallsartgallery.ca
5. The expanded Art Gallery of Ontario [Toronto] houses extensive collections of art donated by the late Ken Thompson. These include, for example, not only the world's largest collection of Cornelius Krieghoff paintings but enough works by William Kurelek to fill one of the new permanent galleries -- www.ago.net
6. A ten minute film about Kurelek made in 1967 by the National Film Board of Canada can be viewed by going to the NFB's website -- www.nfb..ca/film/kurelek/
7. There are several books about Kurelek. These include 1999's Kurelek Country: The Art of William Kurelek by Ramsay Cook and Avrom Issacs (Key Porter Books). Kurelek's autobiography Someone With Me was published in 1973, then republished in a revised condensed version in 1980.
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