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Kurelek's hidden messages go public

One of our most popular artists was tortured by depression
Mary Jo Hughes with some of the art on show in William Kurelek: The Messenger, a comprehensive display of the late Prairie artist's work.



Where: The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

When: Public opening Friday, 8 p.m. Show runs through Sept. 3

Tickets: Regular gallery admission ($13 regular, $11 seniors/students, $2.50 youth, $28 family, free for members and children).

It's been seven years in the making, but the largest show of the works of one of Canada's most popular artists finally lands in Victoria Friday.

"William Kurelek is certainly in the top five of Canadian artists in terms of popularity," said chief curator Mary Jo Hughes, who describes the artist as "up there with Tom Thomson and Emily Carr."

William Kurelek: The Messenger is the largest display of the artist's work ever mounted and the first significant one in 30 years. This will be the third and final stop for the travelling exhibition, which drew a record attendance at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in October and the Art Gallery of Hamilton in January.

It will also be Hughes' final exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, before she moves to become head of collections at the University of Victoria.

While Kurelek is best remembered for pastoral Prairie scenes, such as the cover illustration for W.O. Mitchell's children's novel Who Has Seen the Wind, Hughes said this exhibition gives attention to neverbefore-seen pieces and highlights the moral messages he hid in his work.

"It's his interest in the human condition, I think, that speaks to us," said Hughes, who began putting the show together when she was senior curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, in response to public demand.

"So it's different than say, the Group of Seven, where we can admire their lovely landscapes and their expressive approach to landscapes. Emily Carr, her spirituality comes through her landscapes. But with William Kurelek, he really delves into the human condition."

Kurelek was born to Ukrainian immigrants in Alberta in 1927 and was raised in Manitoba. He spent the last 18 years of his life in Toronto, where he died from cancer at 50.

The exhibition opens with Kurelek's early work, created while he underwent treatment for severe depression during the 1950s in England. Many of his paintings and drawings during this period were produced through an arttherapy program - including one of his most recognizable works, The Maze.

Tortured scenes in the 17-panel piece, depicting a cross-section of the artist's brain, were used for the cover of Van Halen's 1981 album Fair Warning.

After years of treatment, a suicide attempt and shock therapy, Kurelek converted to Catholicism. He credited his faith for his recovery and began creating Christian-themed and apocalyptic works, including a series of 160 paintings inspired by the Passion of Christ.

"Then he learns that in order to sell his paintings or even have people look at them in a serious way, he has to kind of mediate between that darker side and the lighter. He always said he lures [audiences] in with beauty, then gives them a message," said Hughes. "This is when he's at his best."

In one painting in The Ukrainian Pioneer series, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, a large wheat field blankets most of the canvas. A farmer stands waist-deep in the foreground, a faint trail marking his path through the field. He's an immigrant farmer, who has struggled.

But he's built up his land - his lovely farmhouse and outbuildings are in the background - and he's gazing down at the grain in his hand with pride. Materially, he's made it - and has a lush landscape to show for it. "We're lured in by the absolutely stunning beauty of this landscape with the figure of it. And then in the background, on the horizon, you can see a mushroom cloud explode," said Hughes.

"He wanted to show people, don't get too comfortable with your life.

"Because if you're not a good person, if you're not a moral person, you're going to meet with calamity."

The show includes 80 loans from galleries and private collections across Canada, Britain and the United States. Many have never been displayed.

The exhibit is accompanied by an interactive website, There will also be several special lectures and events throughout the summer, including a film screening of the documentary The Maze at Cinecenta May 29 and a presentation by the artist's son, Stephen Kurelek, Aug. 16.

This will be the first large-scale exhibition of Kurelek's work in about 30 years, according to Hughes, who attributes the lull in attention to the regular cycles of interest in certain artists.

"Things kind of go in swings," she said. "There were a few modest exhibitions right after he died and then the Canadian art world moved on. Not that they forgot about him; people always loved him. But I think at this point, with the state of our world, it's timely that we look at him again."

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