William Kurelek’s The Maze

by James McNally on October 21, 2012 · 1 comment

in Documentaries,Film Festivals

William Kurelek's The Maze
Note: Because of the intricacy of the painting depicted in the poster, I’ve linked it to a much larger ver­sion, so please click to see more. And a bit of trivia: Van Halen used a detail of this painting for the cover of their 1981 album Fair Warning.

William Kurelek’s The Maze (Directors: David Grubin, Robert M. Young, Zack Young, Nick Young): My famili­arity with the work of Canadian painter William Kurelek is largely due to a child­hood friend­ship. My friend’s par­ents knew the artist and des­pite the fact that we lived in a modest apart­ment building, their home con­tained a number of what I think were ori­ginal works. It was the 1970s and I knew him as a deeply reli­gious Catholic artist. What I didn’t know was the struggle his life had been up to that time.

In 1969, American film­maker Robert M. Young had been approached by James Maas of Cornell University to make a film about so-called “psychotic art.” When Young saw Kurelek’s painting “The Maze” in Professor Maas’ slide col­lec­tion, he knew he wanted to make a film about the man who cre­ated it. “The Maze” was painted while Kurelek was a patient at a psy­chi­atric hos­pital in England in the early 1950s. It wasn’t intended for public con­sump­tion, but rather to illus­trate the con­tents of his mind to the doc­tors who were treating him. Admitted in a sui­cidal and depressed state, he was ori­gin­ally dia­gnosed as a para­noid schizo­phrenic. He spent sev­eral years on and off in two dif­ferent hos­pitals in England, and received a stag­gering 14 ses­sions of shock treatment.

How he arrived in such a mental state is the focus of the film. Young inter­viewed Kurelek and his family mem­bers and pro­duced a half-hour ver­sion that was widely shown, but he had been working on a longer ver­sion that had been lost until recently. Young’s sons Nick and Zack, musi­cians and visual effects artists, decided to com­plete their father’s work on the longer film, incor­por­ating music and anim­ated sequences.

The inter­views from 1969 remain com­pel­ling for their hon­esty. Kurelek him­self comes across as a man of extreme shy­ness and humility, and his descrip­tion of his darker younger days as a “spir­itual crisis” give an indic­a­tion of how he regained his mental health. Growing up on the prairies as the son of Ukrainian farmers, William never fit into their ideal of phys­ical strength and mental tough­ness. His artistic tem­pera­ment was mis­un­der­stood both at home and at school, and he was bul­lied phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally. Despite his jour­neys to Toronto and Mexico to attend art school, he never seemed to con­nect with kindred spirits and as a result, he felt more and more dis­con­nected from the real world. Painting was his gift and his only form of expressing his pain, but all his par­ents could see was that he couldn’t earn a living.

Ultimately, Kurelek was saved (quite lit­er­ally) by his con­ver­sion to Catholicism in 1957. Through his faith, he was able to turn his focus out­ward and to temper his per­fec­tionist tend­en­cies. He painted a major series on the Passion of Christ, and he began to see his own suf­fer­ings as pre­par­a­tion for depicting those of Jesus. He came to for­give the harsh treat­ment he received from his par­ents, and went on to paint a hap­pier series of paint­ings of his child­hood on the prairies. With that came a measure of suc­cess and sta­bility, and the family that he’d always wanted. Though we don’t hear how they met, his wife Jean is inter­viewed in the film and their chil­dren are seen. Because the film­makers were lim­ited to the ori­ginal inter­views, we don’t get a full pic­ture of what brought Kurelek to the point of con­ver­sion or really any details of his life from 1957 up to 1969, when the inter­views were conducted.

Sadly, William Kurelek died of cancer in 1977 at the young age of 50. His repu­ta­tion grew after his death and though I don’t know where cur­rent tastes rate him, it’s safe to say that he is among the greatest of Canadian artists.

The longer film really dazzles, with more focus on the indi­vidual paint­ings, and the use of anim­a­tion really evokes the powerful emo­tions that must have gone into their cre­ation. William Kurelek’s The Maze has given me a much fuller pic­ture of a fas­cin­ating man and an artist with a unique vision. Though some of the “psy­cho­lo­gical” paint­ings remind me of the work of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Breughel, the range of Kurelek’s work as seen here set him apart as a true original.

The film has been accom­pa­nying a trav­eling exhib­i­tion of his work called William Kurelek: The Messenger during 2011 and 2012. It’s also being shown at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, coming up from November 9–17 here in Toronto.

Official web site of the film

{ 1 comment }

carol ann buckley December 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm

It is wonderful to see this work being used in this way. I am sorry to have missed the November showings.
I spent quite abit of time in Kurelek’s home. I was friends with his oldest child in grade school and the early years in high school. I remember he had painted a mural on their kitchen wall and had one of his earliest-if not first-paintings of a chair and sleeping bag?on the wall in their foyer.
Kurelek and his family were devote Catholics and many times I participated in prayer time with them. I felt very intimidated because although I was Catholic we didn’t pray as a family or talk about what we were thankful for. Thinking about this now, it really is a wonderful, quiet reflective time for a family to be together.
He seemed like a quiet man and had little expression. There home was calm and quiet-much unlike my own.
Kurelek was often away painting and I specifically remember time he was away painting in the Arctic.
We were in grade 9 when he died and I did attend the funeral.
I have not seen my friend for many, many years and would love to reconnect with her.

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