The Dark Side of William Kurelek

This week my friend Esther and I went to see the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I knew William’s work from his delightful books that catalogue life on the prairies in the mid 1900’s.  This summer I had seen a Kurelek series at the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon that depicted what life was like on the prairies for pioneer women. I was also familiar with Kurelek’s Northern Nativity in which he imagines the Christ Child coming in the present day to the north.

My favorite Kurelek paintings were a series I saw at an art gallery in Ottawa that showed the experience of immigrants from the Ukraine traveling to Canada, building communities on the prairie,and becoming successful farmers. I think I liked this Kurelek series so much, because my grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine who helped to build communities and establish farms on the Canadian prairies. 

In all the work of Kurelek I’d seen, he’d painted an almost idyllic picture of life on the prairie. From what I knew of Kurelek he affirmed life, faith, community and family. I hadn’t seen Kurelek’s dark side till I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s exhibit about his life’s work. 

In his painting The Maze –which shows Kurelek’s open decapitated skull– Kurelek depicts his childhood as anything but happy. One scene from The Maze,  shows Kurelek’s father violently kicking him out the door into the cold and snow.

A haunting painting of a blind man Lord That I May See  was easier to understand when I read in the Kurelek biography that William was in a psychiatric hospital  for four years  and tried to commit suicide twice. 

Kurelek credits his  conversion to Roman Catholicism with helping him deal with his mental problems. His new spiritual devotion led him to create many apocalyptic paintings warning about the end of the world. Kurelek truly believed the end of the world was imminent and built a nuclear blast shelter in his basement during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Kurelek’s fervent faith led him to create 160 images showing the Passion of Christ as it is recorded in Matthew. Kurelek did not hesitate to show the gory reality of Christ’s torture and crucifixion. 

My visit to the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery helped me learn so much more about William Kurelek, including the fact that he had a very dark side, and some troubling visions of life and the future of the world. If anything this makes me appreciate his happy, almost poetic paintings of the prairie even more. 

Check out these posts about Canadian artists……

Landscapes For the End of Time

The Wave- Art in the Interlake


Filed under Art, Canada, Culture, Winnipeg

3 responses to “The Dark Side of William Kurelek

  1. Merle Tomyk

    Well done post. I do not live in Winnipeg, but I managed to travel to the city 4 times to attend the exhibition, “William Kurelek: The Messenger”. You may be interested in knowing that in the past 2 years the town of Stonewall has decided to name a new street “Kurelek Crescent”, and the council of the Rural Municipality of Rockwood is naming a newly developed park “William Kurelek Park”. This park is 2 miles from where William was raised and is on the southwest corner of the “bog,” the area of the prairies where the Kurelek family farmed. At the moment several of us who knew William, and others who appreciate his art and literature, are working to have a tribute to him built in the park.


    • Merle Tomyk

      I neglected to mention that when I read that your favourite paintings were the series The Ukrainian Pioneer, I wondered if you knew there is a book available from the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, about this series. The book is printed in Ukrainian, English and French. Another of his books, telling the story of European immigration to North America is They Sought A New World. I highly recommend both these books and have given them as gifts on several different occasions.


      • Dear Merle,
        Thank you so much for this additional information. We have a couple William Kurelek’s in the permanent collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery where I work as a guide. The two books you mention but be helpful to use on tours. Thanks for responding to my posts.


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