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The Maze

Artist: William Kurelek (1927-1977)

William Kurelek’s autobiographical painting The Maze was painted in 1953, when he was 26 and a patient at Bethlem’s sister hospital The Maudsley. The left hand section contains scenes from his past and present life forming a maze in which a white rat (representing himself) is trapped at the centre. On the right his view of the outside world is depicted.

The following is his own interpretation of the painting.

Early Life
Sexual Relationships
The White Rat
My Social Relations
Life and Death
Outside World
  • Overview

    The subject, seen as a whole, is of a man (representing me) lying on a barren plain before a wheatfield, with his head split open. The point of view is from the top of his head.

    The subject is then roughly divided into the left hand side of the picture, [with] the thoughts made in his head represented as a maze; and the right hand side, the view of the rest of his body. The hands and feet are seen through the eyes, nose and mouth, tapering off into the distance and the outside world.

  • Political

    A) my one time attachment to Ukrainian nationalism, which is a cry of anguish at the Ukraine being raped by Russia;

    B) my subsequent association with members of the Peace Movement, a Communist front organisation;

    C) the end result of over-zealous political leaning, WAR (my physical fear of it).

  • Early Life

    A) I, as a small boy, rejected by my school mates;

    B) my fear of school bullies and the ridicule of the school girls;

    C) my fear of being rejected by my father and losing the companionship, food, shelter and warmth of a home;

    D) my father's philosophy, the survival of the craftiest, pointed out by the plight of the foolish fish.

  • Sexual Relationships

    A) the merry-go-round string of rag dolls and wallflowers represent my lack of feeling and direction for dancing;

    B) the bull, dragging along his impediment and galloping towards the cow in heat, represents my fear of the animal side of sex in me.

  • The White Rat

    The white rat curled up in the central cavity represents my spirit ( I suppose). He is curled up with frustration from having run the passages so long without hope of escaping out of this maze of unhappy thoughts.

  • My Social Relations

    Choice between

    A) the hospital, with its ordeal of the panel (I in the test tube), interpreted in turn in two ways,

    1) as a malevolent persecution, or 2) as a benevolent conspiracy:


    B) the outside world - I continuing to be the outcast, skirting the smooth level highway of life in the ditch behind the hedge, sensitive to being seen in the light.

  • Life and Death

    A) Museum of Hopelessness being life and

    B) the conveyor belt bearing the victim (me) inexorably to be crushed by the roller Death, I being one third there by the clock;

    C) the last picture is of me trying to convince myself that I am really mortal, using second hand information (the drawing) rather than examining the skeleton or coffin.

  • Outside World

    Grasshoppers and drought (sun before the clouds) represent the mercilessness of Nature, which bankrupted my father, a farmer, and brought out of him the cornered beast. The thorny, stony ground is a kind of T.S. Eliot Wasteland - spiritual and cultural barrenness: the pile of excrement with flies on it represents my view of the world and the people that live on it. The loosened red ribbon [linking the 2 halves of the skull] bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was untied by psychotherapy (Dr Cormier), but since the outside world is still unappealing, the rat remains inert.

    Before the head was opened, burrs (bitter experiences) choked the throat and pricked the sensitive underside of the tongue, and when it was opened the sawdust and shavings (tasteless education) spilled out from on top the tongue: mixed with the sawdust are symbols of (to me) equally tasteless Art, painting, literature and music. The burrs also represent, in the eye socket, the successive evaluations of my character by any friend during the process of acquaintance, all repellent but hopeful till the last, when the heart is discovered to be a grub.

    On the tongue and in the throat, the Kurelek family (big burrs produce little burrs), representing my father as the hard domineering blue burr opening up the mushy yellow burr, my mother, to release a common lot of burrs, my brothers and sisters, and one unique orange one - myself. The last burr, spearing culture, is I at the university. The inverted one is I as a child, trapped painfully between two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.