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William Kurelek’s Adventures in Psychiatry | Part 1 of 2


When I give tours of the Bethlem Museum’s permanent exhibition, there is a particular piece that never fails to capture visitors’ attention. This piece is William Kurelek’s The Maze. Painted in 1953 during his time in the Maudsley Hospital, visitors are drawn to the painting’s vivacity and its numerous components - each one representing a different layer to Kurelek’s psyche. (1)

At the top, we see representations of Kurelek’s childhood. Kurelek was born to a Ukrainian farming family in 1927, and spent his childhood in ‘Big Lonely’ - the Ca-nadian West. As a schoolboy, he was anxious, prone to hallucinations and detached from the culture of the schoolyard, which is reflected in the uppermost panel of The Maze. At home his father, Dmytro Kurelek, had high expectations of him as his eldest son and as a contributor to the struggling family farm - expectations that Kurelek was intimately aware he could not live up to. (2) Although the bullies and the peasant child being expelled from his home as depicted in The Maze are not reflective of real occurrences, they are depictions of the fears that had been nurtured through Kurelek’s childhood. (3) Among his family, Kurelek was considered a ‘dreamer’ unsuited for the manual labour of the family farm.(4) Kurelek had been a keen artist since his childhood, and although his father was dismissive of this skill his talent was recognised by his classmates. No adult would encourage his creativity until high school, but what truly inspired him to defy his family and become an artist was the work of James Joyce, who he discovered at university. (5)

When he entered adulthood, Kurelek wanted a proper artistic education. This search took him from Ontario to Mexico and back again, but he never got his chance to study under a master painter. During this time, his mental condition only worsened. Disillusioned with the Canadian healthcare system and intrigued by the psychiatric innovation of art therapy, he worked as a lumberjack to fund his journey to England. He arrived at the Maudsley in 1951.(6)

In the lower left corner of The Maze, we see Kurelek inside a test tube, being prodded and analysed by giant doctors. Next to this panel are two more: “malevolent persecution”, depicting a trapped lizard being descended on by crows, and “benevolent conspiracy,” showing Kurelek being doted on by doctors and nurses. Each of these are reflections of Kurelek’s experiences with the Maudsley and with psychiatry at large.(7) At the Maudsley he was treated by Dr. Charatan, who was more interested in Kurelek’s sex life than in his depression and eye pain, and Dr. Cormier, who he perceived as “distant and ineffectual”. He was there for half a year, before becoming an outpatient.(8) Kurelek became disillusioned with psychiatry and felt he was teetering “closer and closer to the edge.” (9) Thus, Kurelek sought to treat him-self. Through research he was able to stop his eye pain, but he was unable to fully cut ties with his past.(10) He wrote Dr. Cormier a letter of complaint accusing him of being dismissive and unhelpful,(11) and presented him with increasingly horrific paintings to get his attention.(12) It was only after an incident of self-harm that he was re-admitted to the Maudsley as an inpatient.(13)

After his readmission to the Maudsley, Kurelek believed he had to convince the staff that he was interesting enough to psychoanalyse. To realise this goal, it was then that he painted The Maze. This, as Kurelek describes it, was “a kind of pictorial package of all [his] emotional problems in a single painting.” He set The Maze in a Manitoban wheat field because he believed that his father taking the farm’s failures out on him was at the root of his problems. The white rat in the centre represents himself at the mercy of the doctors. The resources used to paint this piece were provided by his occupational therapist, Margaret Smith.(14) Smith was an important figure in Kurelek’s life - not only because of her contribution to The Maze, but because she inspired his conversion to Roman Catholicism.(15) Kurelek’s time at the Maudsley was cut short because he was transferred to Netherne Psychiatric Hospital in Couldson. There, he believed he would not have to prove himself to the doctors.(16)

To be continued in Part 2.