In the Frame for June 2011: William Kurelek’s ‘Out of the Maze’
For this month's In the Frame we have chosen William Kurelek's Out of the Maze, the rarely-seen sequel to one of the best known artworks on exhibition in Bethlem Museum, The Maze. Born and bred within Canada’s Ukrainian community, William Kurelek (1927-1977) spent seven of his most formative years in England. He arrived while in his mid-twenties in 1952 with “two express purposes”, as he later put it. “One was to complete my art schooling – at that point in my life I was already convinced my vocation was to be an artist – the other was to get into a [psychiatric] hospital where I might find a cure for my chronic depression and my inexplicable eye pains”.1 The day after his arrival, he admitted himself to the Maudsley Hospital in London, having read of its reputation in a Montreal library prior to embarking on his travels.2The Maze was a product of Kurelek’s time at the Maudsley. It depicts the artist lying partially decapitated in a wheat field, his skull flipped forward to reveal a series of compartments containing various memories, fears and obsessions. A white rat lies trapped and senseless in the centre of the picture.
Many years after his recovery from psychiatric illness (which he attributed not to his hospital treatment but to his conversion to Christianity and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church), Kurelek – by then an artist of some repute in his native country – executed a sequel to The Maze and returned to the Maudsley to present it as a gift. Out of the Maze displays a narrative sequence which takes up where The Maze left off. In left foreground, a bisected skull lies abandoned in the Canadian prairie, its unwilling occupant having long since escaped. In the middle distance, a young family has found a picnic spot, and are saying grace together. Kurelek has placed his own family into this idealized scene: himself, his wife Jean, and his four children. He is truly at home now, patently at peace with himself, his family, his native landscape, and with the God to whom he prays.
Nevertheless, the scene is not altogether idyllic. A mushroom cloud at the top right of the picture presages impending disaster. It should be remembered that Kurelek lived all his adult years in the shadow of the Cold War. His belief that the earth would be shortly ravaged by nuclear conflagration, and its beauty destroyed, was at least plausible in its time. His particular sense of vocation as an artist grew out of this conviction, as if in response to a call issued by Dr Morris Carstairs, formerly his doctor at the Maudsley, in an article on art and psychiatry:
“A few years ago [wrote Carstairs] the writer had occasion to treat a young, self-taught Canadian painter, whose pictures showed certain affinities with those of Bosch, except that where Bosch was obsessed with the imminent destruction of humanity, this patient was for a time preoccupied exclusively with his own tortured ruminations, his own nightmarish fantasies and his sense of being trapped and helpless…Where, I wonder, is the contemporary artist who can turn his innocent eye upon the nightmare realities of this era with its threat of nuclear annihilation? We need a Goya or a Hieronymous Bosch today to quicken our sense of urgency of the human predicament before it is too late.”3
Last month Out of the Maze went on display in the Museum alongside The Maze and Nightmare, where it is likely to stay until at least October 2011. Die-hard Kurelekistas may want to start saving their pennies in order to visit the major Kurelek retrospective exhibition planned to open in Canada in 2012.