Shades of Kurelek 1

Last month we wrote that Archives & Museum staff “would love to be flies on the wall at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, on 26 April, to witness a roundtable discussion on creativity, madness and religion, each of which played their part in the biography of William Kurelek (1927-1977)”. Well, we missed the roundtable, but our Archivist did have the opportunity to visit Hamilton to see the retrospective exhibition of Kurelek’s works mentioned in that blogpost shortly before it left to go to the west coast of Canada. William Kurelek: The Messenger, soon to open at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, is a rare opportunity to see a cross-section of the artist’s oeuvre. His works are starkly beautiful, accessible yet challenging and (to the Archivist at least) evocative of the work of several contemporary artists whose work is more or less well-known in popular culture. In this post and in two to follow, he highlights the works in which he has found shades of Kurelek.

In a mid-twentieth century article on art and psychiatry, Dr Morris Carstairs, formerly of the Maudsley Hospital, wrote: “Where, I wonder, is the contemporary artist who can turn his innocent eye upon the nightmare realities of this era with its threat of nuclear annihilation? We need a Goya or a Hieronymous Bosch today to quicken our sense of the urgency of the human predicament before it is too late.”1 The post-hospital career of one of his patients at the Maudsley could be understood in terms of an unconscious response to this call. William Kurelek was perhaps the quintessential artist of the Cold War. Convinced of the imminent likelihood of a nuclear conflagration, Kurelek did not shrink from the representation of the horrors that would be unleashed upon humanity by that outcome, down to the most minute detail. In many ways his work is analogous to the most notorious of the works of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Hell (in both its 2000 and 2008 iterations). The critic Jonathan Jones has called it “a terrific work of imagination, its plenitude of barbarities truly mind-boggling.” “Every time you think you’ve got the measure of it,” he adds, “you notice a new ludicrous yet fearsome, throwaway yet lovingly rendered detail of life in the abyss”.2

Something similar could be said about many of the works included in the exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger. There was something particularly chilling about seeing his This is the Nemesis (pictured below) on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, as it depicts the moment of that city’s annihilation (as well as the destruction of Toronto, on the other side of Lake Ontario) from an elevated viewpoint on the hills to the south. Kurelek does not spare us any of the horror of this scene. Hamilton’s factories, apartment blocks, railways, trees and lakes have all been destroyed or irretrievably blighted. An intense firestorm is raging through the streets of the city, and in its path are the bloodied bodies of its dead and dying citizens. Those not killed outright by the blast are vomiting blood in its parks or racked with pain on makeshift hospital beds. We sense that their time is short. Kurelek brings a meticulous documentary style to this and other portrayals of the apocalypse. Yet there was no gratuitous intent to these representations. Kurelek’s purpose was (to adopt the words of Dr Carstairs) to “quicken our sense of the urgency of the human predicament before it is too late”.

1 William Kurelek, Someone With Me (Cornell University Press: Ithaca NY, 1973), pages 521-522; (McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1980), pages 174-175.

2 Jonathan Jones, ‘The Chapman brothers’ Hell is the best art of our age’, The Guardian, 23 February 2009.



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