William Kurelek’s painting Zaporozhian Cossacks has been added to one of the collections on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The title Zaporozhian Cossacks immediately connected with me personally. We stayed in the city of Zaporozhia in Ukraine during the week we were exploring the places where our grandparents had lived before coming to Canada as refugees.
We also took photos at a giant oak tree that was a gathering place for cossacks in the Zaporozhia area hundreds of years ago.
In his painting William Kurelek tells the story of a Zaporozhian cossack named Taras Bulba. While a student in Kiev Taras’s son Andriy falls in love with the daughter of a Polish noble. Andriy returns home and his father orders him to take part in a military campaign against the Poles. During the battle Andriy discovers the girl he loves is among the Poles starving to death inside a city the cossacks have surrounded. Andriy smuggles food in to her. His father kills him for his treasonous act.
I think the man in the colorful clothes at the centre of the painting is Taras. I am speculating Tarus is talking to a man named Yankel who was the informer that told Taras of his son’s betrayal. But he could also be talking to his own son Andriy who is begging for mercy. I think these are the cossacks dancing and singing on one side of the paintingwhile on the other side in the background we see the starving Poles inside the besieged city. Could that be Andriy’s executioner in the left foreground wielding a sword? I was particularly drawn to the group of men to the right of the executioner. They seem unperturbed by the chaos around them as they play music and pet a dog. I wish I could talk to William Kurelek about the painting and ask him what he has depicted in its various sections. But as I always tell the children I guide at the gallery each viewer finds their own story in a piece of art. That’s what makes visiting an art gallery so interesting.
Like me artist William Kurelek was from a Canadian Ukrainian immigrant family. Kurelek lived on a farm near Stonewall Manitoba as a child and when he was a teenager his family moved to Winnipeg where William studied art at the University of Manitoba. Later he took classes at a fine arts school in Mexico where he was influenced by muralists like Diego Rivera. He painted Zaporzhian Cossacks as a tribute to his father in 1952 just before William moved to England. William is probably best known to Canadians for his illustrations of the books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer.