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He was a farm boy with deep Ukrainian roots, known for nostalgic paintings of children playing in snow and immigrants working the land.
His award-wining books A Prairie Boy's Winter and A Prairie Boy's Summer are iconic for many Canadians, especially Manitobans.
But artist William Kurelek was also a tormented soul who, as a young man, descended into mental illness, lost his faith and attempted suicide. He emerged a devout Roman Catholic, driven to warn his fellow humans of the folly of a godless, materialistic life.
Kurelek was born in 1927 in Alberta, but grew up on a farm near Stonewall and completed high school and university in Winnipeg, later settling in Toronto. He had a troubled relationship with his immigrant father, who expected him to become a doctor or lawyer.
He always considered Stonewall his spiritual home as an artist. Our province inspired some of his best-loved works, such as the charming Manitoba Party, depicting a rural feast in an orange tent.
Kurelek only lived to age 50 -- he died in 1977 -- but poured out more than 2,000 paintings. He likened himself to a medieval manuscript illuminator who served God every time he lifted his brush.
"He saw his art as communicating messages that related to the Christian religion," says Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and co-curator of the landmark exhibition WilliamKurelek: The Messenger.
The show of more than 80 significant works, spanning Kurelek's entire career from 1950 to 1977, formally opens at the WAG tonight as part of the free Nuit Blanche celebration and runs to Dec. 31.
Jointly organized by the WAG, Art Gallery of Hamilton and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (the partner institutions will show it next year), it's the first Kurelek retrospective in more than 25 years, and the largest ever mounted.
Exhaustive scholarly research and detective work to locate paintings took six years on the part of Kear and co-curators Tobi Bruce (Hamilton) and Mary Jo Hughes (Victoria).
Kurelek's 1950s atheist period, when he spent two years in British mental hospitals, produced macabre, nightmarish works with titles such as I Spit on Life. His 1953 masterwork The Maze (depicting the anguish inside his own head, used on the cover of Van Halen's rock album Fair Warning), was too fragile for this show, but a later version of it is here.
Once he started showing at a Toronto gallery in 1960, Kurelek's dealer convinced him to alternate between accessible shows of rural scenes and didactic shows of Christian paintings.
But even in the bucolic paintings, Kear notes, a dark warning often lurks. There is cruelty, for instance, in the children's games he depicts. Kurelek was at his best, the curators argue, when he "successfully bridged the pastoral and the prophetic."
In the painting Material Success, a prosperous family enjoys its appliance-loaded kitchen while in the distance, an apocalyptic bomb erupts. In the final painting of the acclaimed series The Ukrainian Pioneer, an immigrant farmer stands proudly in his wheat field, but far away there's a mushroom cloud.
The show catalogue, a glossy hardcover book, describes Kurelek as one of Canada's most popular, yet most enigmatic, 20th-century artists. He has been called "Canada's Norman Rockwell" and "Canada's Cornelius Krieghoff," but both comparisons are too narrow for his diverse and contradictory body of work, Kear says.
His illustrative narrative style was out of step with the abstraction that ruled the art world of the 1960s and '70s. He was not a major artist internationally, but that doesn't mean he had no impact beyond Canada.
In 1962, the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art was invited to Toronto to select one contemporary Canadian work for the MOMA collection.
Modernist abstract painters like Jack Bush and Harold Town were dominating the scene. Yet the expert chose Kurelek's Hailstorm in Alberta, in which a lone farmer cowers during a merciless storm. It's now on loan from MOMA for the WAG show.
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"His work is extremely polarizing," says Kear. "You had critics praising him from day one, and then you had critics who could not get beyond being hit over the head with a message.
"The three curators who worked on this found ourselves torn that way, too. You keep getting pulled into the works. You know you're being preached at, but there's something about the work itself that stands out."
Two of William Kurelek's four children are expected to attend the WAG retrospective. Avrom Isaacs, the legendary Toronto gallery owner (originally from Winnipeg) who was Kurelek's career-long dealer, is also coming for the opening.
This marks the first time the WAG has created a companion website for an exhibition. It received federal funding to ensure that www.kurelek.ca will stay online for at least five years. The extensive website includes an audio interview with Kurelek, a timeline and a section for students and teachers. Visitors can view all 80-plus works and zoom in on details. There's also a video about Kurelek's tiny, windowless basement studio in Toronto. Some believe his death from cancer was linked to years of exposure to paint fumes in the closet-like space.
The show includes a Kurelek Korner with family activities. A huge version of the big orange tent from the painting Manitoba Party is on the wall, minus the food and people. Art supplies are on hand so anyone can create a plate of food or a party guest and use a magnet to put it in the picture.
Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. (admission $10), the WAG screens William Kurelek's The Maze, a 1970 documentary about the artist that has been expanded with newly rediscovered footage. There are many other events tied in with the show.