This article was first published in IMAGE, a journal of the arts and religion, Spring, 1995, issue number 9, pages 75-93, Denville, N.J.
The Passion of William Kurelek
by Michael D. O’Brien
Beloved, you are strangers and in exile . . . .
1 Peter 2:11
from The Passion of Christ series
The astonishing career of the Canadian Catholic painter William Kurelek is an anomaly in the history of modern religious art. His paintings hang in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirschhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institute, the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and several other museums in North America and Europe. During his lifetime he was honoured with more than thirty national and international awards, no less than six documentary films have been made of his life and work to date, and at least sixteen books of his stories and paintings have been published, including his great project, The Passion of Christ, a series of 160 illustrations of the Gospel of Matthew. Kurelek became increasingly well-known as his work was published and as he attracted more and more attention in international magazines. The New York Times called him “the North American Breughel.” Memories of his childhood surfaced in award-winning books such as A Prairie Boy’s Summer and A Prairie Boy’s Winter. His imaginative Northern Nativity, a redepiction of the birth of Christ in Canadian scenes, became a modern children’s classic.
In later years he concentrated on several volumes which illustrated the life of the ethnic peoples of Canada: the Inuit, the Irish, the Jews, the Poles and the Ukrainians. At his death he left an estimated ten thousand works of art (a figure which includes major drawings), two thousand of which were paintings completed during the seventeen years between his first exhibition and his death in 1977. The fame which came to him during those public years was in stark contrast to the desolation of his early life as an artist, during which he labored under chronic depression and almost universal indifference to his message.
In his autobiography, Someone With Me, he relates an incident which occurred during that period. In 1950 he was hitch-hiking to Mexico where he hoped to be admitted to an art school. Caught at night in the chilly Arizona desert, he crawled under a low road-bridge and lay curled up on the bare ground. Not sure if he was fully asleep, he became aware that he was not alone. A mysterious figure appeared beside him and told him to get up and continue his journey.
He appeared to be a person in a long white robe and he was urging me to rise. “Get up,” he was saying. “We must look after the sheep or you will freeze to death.” I obeyed and set off at a near run down the road shaking violently with the chill.
The incident occurs not, as one might suppose, during a period of religious fervor, but unexpectedly in the midst of Kurelek’s professed atheism, after an indifferent religious upbringing. The vision was a sign that he would not understand until after his conversion to Catholicism seven years later. In the intervening years he would plunge into the disintegration of mental illness and the moral chaos of the modern world. While many successful artists of his generation were occupied with power, cultivating self-images as protean beings, Kurelek was becoming “nothing.” It was not, however, the nothingness of negation, but a state which matured into true poverty of spirit. Later he would understand that his immersion in the pain of abandonment was providential. Equipped with this hard grace, he learned to speak with authority about the mercy of God, the resurrection offered to all, even to the most devastated of human beings. While most artists of his generation were arranging secular salvations, he was undergoing a fierce discipleship which prepared him to be a faithful shepherd. He was crushed with suffering in order that he might not be destroyed by the fame which would come to him in torrents. Because of that early crucifixion he remained a servant and became a prophet.
Saint Paul reminds us that the prophetic gift is limited (1 Cor 13.8). Prophecy is imperfect because prophets are imperfect. Like all men, they emerge from specific landscapes and histories; they are formed by their times and damaged by sin. It is their difficult calling to proclaim visions of wholeness while remaining conscious of their own incompleteness; to proclaim the realities of the Promised Land while dwelling in exile.
Stranger and Sojourner
Kurelek was born in a “shack” northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, in 1927, the eldest child of Dmytro and Mary Kurelek, and was raised in the midst of the Great Depression. His father had emigrated from the Ukraine after the First World War. From earliest memory Dmytro had grown up in a climate of disruption. He was forced to end his education in the third grade because of the war, and from then until his emigration he was a witness to constant violence. He was a born story-teller and later recounted experiences such as loading soldiers’ bodies on a wagon after battles. He became a smuggler and was beaten by border patrols and jailed before he finally managed to escape. He arrived in Canada at the age of nineteen with seven dollars in his pocket and the clothes on his back. He also brought with him a bitterness against the family in the Old Country and a smouldering anger against the injustices of life.
Dmytro and William Kurelek, late 1940s
Dmytro Kurelek was the key figure in his son’s life. He was strong and hard working. He and his wife Mary, a second-generation Ukrainian, were at work in their fields the morning following their wedding party. To them, life was a struggle, life was battle. Dmytro especially saw threats all around him: weather, neighbours, stubborn farm animals, or the imperfections of children. He made enemies easily and kept few friends. He was a “displaced person” to the very roots of his soul, and he passed on a sense of exile to his eldest son.
There was a great deal of anger in the household. The parental attitude was that children were to be punished, not just for “being bad” but for making mistakes, for fears, for sickness, for lacking vigilance in a dangerous world. The younger children were light-hearted by nature and took this mostly in their stride. The sensitive eldest son suffered intensely. He was occasionally kicked in the backside but most often mocked for being “useless,” “weak,” and “deaf.” He retreated into himself and eventually became almost totally silent.
As a young child he began to suffer hallucinations. A huge vulture would perch over his crib, threatening to peck out his eyes. Seeing was of great importance to the boy. The family was unaffectionate in those early years, and touch was not a sense used to express love. Hearing was the channel through which he received mockery. Sight, therefore, would become a prized possession—he could gaze into creation and find there the joy which was lacking at home. The theme of vision was central in Kurelek’s life, long before he discovered his startling power to recreate what he had seen. In later years, before his conversion, he often experienced psychosomatic eye pain and terror of losing his sight.
Kurelek’s sense of alienation increased when he was sent to school knowing only a little English. His chattering in Ukrainian was met with laughter and derision. He devotes a large section of his autobiography to the bullying he suffered at grade school. In the early edition of the book he tells with a vivid sense of recall the names and exact words of his tormentors. He describes himself as “hypersensitive” in those years. He was excessively timid and lacking in courage at school, where a sense of social inferiority kept him the victim of “cruel sport.” For years he could not fight back, but his fertile imagination developed fantasies of revenge. Early drawings were full of violence, such as people’s heads being blown off by canon-balls. His ability to draw invited some attention at school, and through this skill he eventually began to find a fragile sense of recognition and worth.
It was a frail defence against the over-riding disapproval of his father. Dmytro was upset by what he called “devil pictures” pinned to his son’s bedroom wall, manic imagery surging up from the boy’s subconscious. He was not a religious man, and it may be that he merely feared his own pessimism being handed down through his son. He was often morose about the series of crop-failures and the fires which dogged the family. In l934 they relocated to a new farm in Stonewall, Manitoba, but the move did not cure Dmytro’s frustrations. Often he would take out his anger on the farm animals. The young Kurelek would try to console his dog after the creature was maltreated, and when a mare died of beatings and overwork, “it broke my heart.”
Before the power of his father the boy was to live with a deepening sense of powerlessness and depersonalization. He approached adolescence with few strengths, but he was undergoing an education in suffering and compassion. And he was developing an intense love for creation, finding there a beauty and harmony that he was not able to see elsewhere. The cycle of the seasons, the sand pit where thousands of swallows had carved holes for their nests, the infinite creativity of dawns and sunsets, were exposure to a wealth of mystery crying out in the created order. Every prairie child was immersed in such marvels, but there were few who would respond so passionately. The young Kurelek would not break the chain of darkness by his seeing. He would, in fact, be enchained pitilessly until well into manhood. But he was storing up essential information about the nature of reality, a rich inner resource which would eventually be liberated and would inform countless other human beings about the nature of light and darkness.
Winter Windows and Praying Boy
The boy was drawn to religion, but the family rarely attended liturgical services at the local Orthodox church. Dmytro’s skepticism and his naïve concepts about organized religion kept the children away from its influence. Doctrine came to them in accidental scraps, liberally seasoned with the prejudices and folk-lore of their elders. Despite the lopsided image of faith, Kurelek was blessed with an extraordinary experience when he was about twelve years old. At school he happened upon a cheap image of Christ calming the waters. He was overcome with an indescribable feeling of elation and stumbled to a seat, “looking ahead, hoping that no one had seen the change come over me.” This religious experience brought with it the desire to worship. He went into the bush and cut a thick willow branch. It smelled like incense, he noted, and from it he carved a crucifix. During the day he would occasionally steal into his bedroom to pray before it. And sometimes at night he would get out of bed, hoping against hope that his brother, with whom he slept, would not awake; he would kneel and pray before the cross. His l961 painting, Winter Windows and Praying Boy strongly evokes the emotions of this brief grace period. But the burst of spirituality was raw and undirected. There was no one with whom he could discuss the questions which inevitably arose. There were disappointments about “unanswered prayers.” And shortly after, puberty began in full-force. He stopped praying and the years of unbelief began.
His university years were a time of radical departure for Kurelek, and the beginning of resistance to his father’s will. First, he refused to study medicine and instead chose an arts programme at the University of Manitoba that he hoped would lead to a career as a high-school teacher. Later, he refused to work at the farm in summer, laboring instead in lumber camps to pay for tuition. His camp experiences were to emerge twenty years later as the children’s book, Lumberjack. The illustrations are humorous and realistic, reflecting none of the turmoil he was feeling at the time. It is surprising that one so timid by temperament would stride off into the world with such determination, but he was desperate to prove his manhood. Moreover, he felt that independence was absolutely necessary for his psychological survival.
Freedom was not easily maintained. At university he was haunted by feelings of inferiority, thought himself poorly dressed compared to the other students, and made few friends. He recalled that he was “starved for a kindred soul with whom I could communicate my mental turmoil and artistic interests.” A young woman he was infatuated with was not interested in him. He developed adulation for an Orthodox priest, adopting the man’s Ukrainian nationalism for a time, before becoming disillusioned with this first of many surrogate fathers. Other relationships ended in failure, notably an ardent attachment to a young student. The friend was an egocentric spendthrift. Kurelek lent him money without being repaid and eventually realized that he was being used. As his discouragement deepened, he began to find friends and fathers in the world of literature. He was not an intellectual but he was intelligent and had a speculative cast of mind. He saturated himself in the writings of Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, and Spenser. Romantic dreams, idealistic plans, and a sense of great personal destiny came in part from these readings. Periods of elation alternated with plunges into ever deeper loneliness.
James Joyce’s novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was the most pervading influence upon his thought during his university years. He identified completely with the rebellious central character, Stephen Dedalus, whose words in the final lines of the novel stirred Kurelek deeply:
Welcome, o life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
Kurelek was to forge a significant part of that vision, but he was not yet equipped to do so. First he would need to understand the destructiveness of rebellion and the dishonesty inherent in the romantic posturing of rebels. Only then would he comprehend the necessity of passing through this stage toward a revolution of the self as a fundamental reorientation to love and truth. Such a change is not possible if one rejects personal responsibility for sin, a truth which escaped Kurelek during this period.
“I carried my wretchedness like a heavy stone sewn up inside of me,” he said. Imprisoned in a sense of worthlessness, he sought liberation by flight alone. But flight from the self is not possible. As long as his father remained for him an embodiment of evil, he was unable to face his own capacity for evil. Because he could not forgive, redemption remained closed to him. His unacknowledged and unrepented guilt condemned him to a vicious cycle of self-hatred. The trying on of different personae would remain a futile attempt to become someone else. Yet in all of this, there was a search for authenticity. Even then, perhaps he sensed that an artist could not give to things their true shapes and their real colours until he had found his own essential form.
After graduation from university in l949, against protests from his father, he entered the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He was “shy, asocial,” an “introvert,” working as a construction laborer to support himself. But the high romance of art school proved to be a disappointment, for he found the college full of cliques and competitiveness. He was also meeting many atheists and agnostics who confirmed his bleak view of existence. He read the life of Vincent van Gogh (l853-l890) and was overwhelmed by it. With the hindsight of middle age, Kurelek understood that the paths of their lives had been directly opposite. Van Gogh had begun to draw when he was still a Christian evangelist who entered the lives of the poor as a pilgrim in search of the sacred hidden in humble humanity. But in the journey he had lost his faith, becoming a wanderer and an alien instead of a pilgrim. In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh had written:
What am I in most people’s eyes? A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low.
Kurelek identified strongly with van Gogh, and in his own journal he wrote:
I am trying to fashion my life on theirs (Joyce and van Gogh). I am proud of my poverty, of not eating the right food or enough of it, of wearing shabby clothes . . . of chumming with communists and eccentrics; proud even of suffering the periods of depression because I believe that out of this I am destined to produce great art.
William Kurelek, circa 1950
His journey to Mexico was a step in his long quest to find a mentor who would help the development of his art. He hoped to enroll in an English-language art school at San Miguel, and to study under David Siquieros (l889-l974), one of Mexico’s foremost muralists, internationally famous for his bold depictions of Mexican history and man’s struggle for freedom. Arriving to find the school disbanded and Siquieros gone, Kurelek enrolled in the Institudo Allende instead. During his five month stay he excelled at his art assignments and formed tentative relationships with students and staff, several of whom were communists. Many were “homosexuals or divorced or living common-law.” This was a revelation to the prairie farm boy. The University of Manitoba had been secular but it had not been like this.
Kurelek was struck by the contrast between the wealthy United States and an impoverished Mexico. He was impressed by vivid images, the “monstrous” crowd at a bullfight, a street lined with grinning prostitutes. He was coming to the realization that humanity in general was in very poor shape. It was necessary for him to learn this, but at the time he could only feel disappointment about the progress of his life. The sense of destiny grew apace with his feelings of desolation. He had gone to Mexico hoping to find a spiritual father who would unlock the greatness within him, but the quest appeared to have failed before it had begun. He made a special trip to Mexico City in an attempt to make acquaintance with the master painters Siquieros, Orozco, and Rivera, but without contacts it came to nothing. Years later, in England, he wrote to another of his heroes, Sir Stanley Spencer (l89l-l959), begging him for an interview. Spencer was considered the foremost muralist in the English-speaking world. His portrayals of the life of Christ situated among the streets and townsfolk of his native village of Cookham were works of great originality and technical excellence. Unfortunately, Kurelek received no reply. It was another link in a chain of disappointments, but it burned into him a resolve never to turn away a request for assistance. When he came to be an established artist he sacrificed much time and energy to encourage young artists.
In Mexico, Kurelek’s primary wound was laid bare. It was a gash at the core of his being, bleeding away vital energies. He diagnosed his underlying lack as “fatherlessness.” The handsome, gentle young artist had been forced to repel a number of homosexual advances during his journey south. The most devastating and personal of these incidents involved a writer with whom he lived in Mexico, a man who had cultivated Kurelek’s friendship, the artist felt, solely for the purpose of sexual seduction. It must have shaken his already fragile sense of manhood. He had entered into several promising friendships in the hope of love and affirmation only to be repeatedly betrayed by what he felt was falsehood. It is unlikely that he suffered the temptation to homosexual impulses, but he had strongly developed feminine qualities (he refers to this aspect of his personality in the Houghton-Mifflin film, The Maze). Perhaps, too, he instinctively made the connection between the violence he had suffered under his father and the implicit violence of seduction, for both are negations of the true identity of the victim. His reaction, then, was a matter of preserving the fragile remnants of his sense of self. It did not derive from any moral code. It is probable that he would have reacted in exactly the same manner had the suitor been a woman.
In the spring of l951 he returned to Canada, worked in bush camps to raise money, then sailed for England. He arrived there determined to break the cycle of depressions, paranoia, sexual preoccupations, and self-dramatization. The day after his ship docked he applied and was accepted as an out-patient at Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in London. He took rooms nearby and supported himself at a series of odd jobs until he could be admitted for observation. During the delay he painted and read. In a medical journal he found an article on psychosomatic eye pain, which confirmed that his problems were indeed psychological. He read Marx’s Das Kapital and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He was still looking for an art school and made a journey across Europe to find one, but was feeling increasingly isolated. The search was half-hearted and came to nothing. He was aghast at the state of Soviet-occupied Austria. Enormous billboards with portraits of Stalin proclaimed: “Glory to Stalin.” Reverberating with his recent reading of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, he was frightened:
I’ve always been scared. I was scared of trees crushing me in the bush when I was a lumberjack; of people rolling me in flophouses; of rattlesnakes biting me in the desert . . . All these things, had they happened, would have had my father pointing an accusing finger: “See, I warned you!”
All his life Dmytro had painted a portrait of Europe as a place where people were “malicious, deceptive, and thieving.” England was helping to dispel some of that image, but life behind the Iron Curtain was reinforcing it.
In Brussels and Vienna he saw the masterpieces of Pietr Bruegel (l525-1569) and Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516). He spent three days “feasting my eyes” on every detail of the eight Bruegels in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Bruegel’s works are almost always a portrait of mankind, not of individual people. The landscapes are specific geographies, but they are metaphors for the world. The Massacre of the Innocents, for example, takes place in a sixteenth-century village in the snow. His proverb paintings, such as The Blind Leading the Blind, would later give Kurelek the mandate for his own moral tales. Bruegel’s non-biblical works are imbued with a religious sense; works such as Peasant Wedding and Hunters in the Snow are universal, timeless in impact. A more zealous work, Fall of the Rebel Angels, which Kurelek saw in Brussels, is a fierce battle between angels and hybrid monsters similar to the hallucinogenic imagery of Bosch.
Bosch’s panoramic landscapes, leaping with fantastic creatures and demons, expressed religious themes through the eyes of a severe moralist. It is prophetic vision, a stark sermon on the urgency of vigilance against a remorseless enemy, the devil. In The Last Judgement he depicts the Second Coming of Christ as a descent of the Lord into a world devoured by evil. There is a startling contrast between the luminous divine order of the returning Christ and the paroxysm of demonic energy in the chaos of universal abomination. Kurelek, the avowed atheist, may have been drawn only to the hallucinatory imagery and disregarded the Christ figure as an anachronism or a cultural idiosyncrasy of Bosch’s. In the manic scenes he would find a reflection of his own inner torments, and hence a symbolic representation of existence-as-it-is, or as it appeared to be at this time in his life: a world of despair but one relieved mysteriously by the magic of art. His sufferings would find meaning in a painted incarnation of his inner darkness. To be master of the hallucination would mean that he was above it. It was not salvation by grace, but it promised a secular redemption. He felt kinship with Bosch even as he failed to grasp the source of Bosch’s conviction. Kurelek’s inner landscape was still without recognizable signs of a Savior. The signs were there, but he was blind to them. Only later, when Christ returned to Kurelek’s devastated interior world, would the artist begin to see how close he had come to total disintegration. Only then would he understand Bosch.
Kurelek’s sense of futility and emptiness would deepen in the coming years, but an indelible message had been imprinted. Henceforth he would have not one but two spiritual fathers in Bruegel and Bosch. They would provide the models that could liberate the wealth of personal imagery he had been accumulating since birth. These painters were dead, but their vision lived, showing him that both streams of inspiration were valid: peasant imagery was pregnant with meaning, an ideal metaphor for humanity. And the hallucinatory imagery within him now had an overwhelming precedent, though he would not understand it as spiritual metaphor until after his conversion to Catholicism. Nor could he foresee that it was possible to integrate both, that they would re-emerge as his own powerful language.
Commitment to psychiatric hospital did not relieve his torment. He was making no progress in therapy and had twice attempted suicide in a bid for more attention from his doctors, who he felt were not working hard enough for his cure. About this time he painted The Maze (l953), a pictorial display of his problems depicted as small vignettes in compartments of a maze inside his skull. The skull is split in two and lies open on the ground of a wheat field. A rat, representing his self, is coiled at the centre of the maze, while through the nose of the skull can be seen a dung heap which symbolizes the world. The human race is represented by a cloud of flies “crawling over it to suck out a living.”
There is a certain calculation to these images. The artist saw it as a “Swiftian” vision, similar to the savage satires of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Swift was an Anglo-Irish poet, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, a work of moral satire, irony and sheer fun. It is also a relentless castigation of human blindness. “Principally, I hate and detest that animal called Man,” Swift wrote, then added that he heartily loved individual persons. Kurelek could relate to this. The gangs of bullies at school were man; his few friends in childhood had been lone individuals, persecuted because of their refusal or inability to live by herd-law.
Kurelek took a step farther away from satire toward pure bitterness in a painting completed the following year. Titled I Spit on Life, it depicts the artist as a caged, chained beast, painting an infinity of mirrors, surrounded by scenes of cruelty. The images are a mixture of symbol and memory. It was intended as a plea for help and a last rebuke to a heartless world. A sign beneath the cage warns the viewer not to humour the animal inside because he might commit suicide. In another vignette inside the painting the artist’s face is covered with a “depersonalization bag” as he hands out leaflets printed with the message, “help me, help me, help me.” Kurelek abandoned all affinity with Swift, however, in the next experiment. Seeking to exorcise his feelings of hatred, he portrayed himself having captured his parents, stripped them, and mutilated their bodies. Even the most seasoned doctors in the hospital were shocked by the painting. It only proved to Kurelek that catharsis did not work.
In l953 he was transferred to Netherne Psychiatric Hospital, where he began to sink into a sense of “complete and utter abandonment . . . I was a consciousness lost in the universe.” Finally, overcome by a total sense of depersonalization, he made a serious attempt at suicide. Lacerating his arms and face with a razor, overdosed with drugs, he hid away in a closet and waited to die. He was rescued at the last moment and, after a convalescence, agreed to undergo electro-convulsive therapy known as “shock treatment.” He was given fourteen treatments, and he said later that “it was like being executed fourteen times over.” There can be no doubt that this is exactly true, for the instinctive dread of annihilation increased with each treatment. There, at the very depths of his descent, he began to pray. “And I have been praying ever since.”
This was the pivotal moment of his life. The first tentative assent to grace became a stream, and along with it came a gradual rebuilding of his inner life. He was not substantially changed, but his attitudes were more hopeful. He began to feel. Eventually, upon his release from hospital, he took up residence in a tiny room in London, earning four pounds a week from the sale of trompe-l’oeil paintings, small photo-realistic works of coins, letters and stamps. The gallery where he sold them was exploiting him, he felt, but he did not mind, so glad was he to be alive.
In l955 he painted Lord That I May See, a work which revealed his changing perspective. A blind man gropes his way on a path that leads upward to a tree on a height. A skylark swoops above the tree, and the shadow of an unseen figure covers the man. The figure is Jesus. The face of the artist, though still blind, is looking up and outward toward exterior reality, away from the inner maze. He lifts his right arm and open hand in a gesture of beseeching. The face is still puzzled, anguished, but it is full of hope. Kurelek was studying the Faith at the time, and a slow comprehension was growing in him: the presence of beauty in the world had no satisfactory explanation. He met Father Thomas Lynch, a parish priest whose warm concern gave him affirmation as an artist and a man. He was introduced to many prominent Catholics, notably the theologian Father Edward Holloway who had trained at the English College in Rome. This encounter was crucial to Kurelek’s complete conversion. Holloway had answers to existential and theological problems, and he welcomed open discussion. Kurelek began to read extensively in theology and philosophy. He was fascinated by logic and excited by the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and especially Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose proofs of the existence of God he found impressive. He understood that these were not proofs as defined by scientific method, but a process of establishing the validity of a belief through acceptable principles of reasoning. He found that “disbelief in God’s existence is a blind act of faith and belief in God’s existence is reasonable.”
Lord, That I May See
Regarding the problem of evil, one of his major difficulties, he concluded that “God permits suffering because . . . He knows that the good that comes out of it will in the end outweigh the evil. I know personally how true that is. It was precisely my suffering which broke through my selfishness and pride.” Upon completion of his instructions, Kurelek was received formally into the Roman Catholic Church on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, 11 February, l957. The date was not premeditated. But it was especially significant for him because a year after his release from hospital he had made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Lourdes and had prayed there for the gift of complete faith. Now that prayer was answered. He was surprised and delighted by the seeming coincidence. He remembered clearly the visual setting of this night of reception into the Church, for it was a perfect expression of his new-found state: “Outside it was dark and windy and raining, while inside there was just this little island of light . . .”
Kurelek remained in England until l959. The years between his conversion and his return to Canada were filled with artistic growth and a developing sense of worth. The whole of his life was moving toward sanity and purpose. He began to see reality in a different light, and from the day of his reception into the Church the pain in his eyes did not return. Self Portrait (l957), a work of high realism, attests to the transformation of his inner life. The artist is no longer the little manikin of The Maze or I Spit on Life, but a large central figure who dominates the image space, gazing outwards to the viewer with a gentle but penetrating expression. There is a sense of personhood –– identity. He is surrounded no longer by scenes of terror and grief but by painted “photographs” of joyful memories and images of his new-found faith. It is a biography of the soul, dominated by figures who played a major role in his conversion. The child represents Saint Bernadette, her face bathed in the light of ecstatic vision. The basilica is the shrine of Lourdes; Father Lynch and a hospital therapist are also there. The artist includes the prayer of Saint Augustine: “Late have I loved Thee, O ancient beauty, ever old and ever new.” The image is somewhat idealistic. A great deal of suffering still lay ahead for Kurelek, a life-long struggle, but the struggle was to be more and more transfigured by faith.
Self Portrait, 1957
Upon his arrival in Canada, Kurelek went to Toronto to explore employment possibilities. He hoped to establish himself as a framer, but without capital it proved impossible. He found no framers willing to hire him, so he set himself to a task he had been dreaming of since his conversion. In England he had begun research for a massive project which involved the illustration of the Gospel of Saint Matthew sentence by sentence, an estimated eight hundred paintings. He now limited himself to the Passion of Christ. It was a grand scheme, a truly awesome challenge. He gave himself three years for the project, scheduling a white-hot pace of production. It was to be an act of gratitude for his conversion and an act of abandonment to God’s will. He often repeated to himself the words of Job: “Even though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” As he describes it, “cracks began to appear in the apparently hopeless wall.”
A major breakthrough was not long in coming, however, for Avrom Isaacs, owner of the world-class Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, agreed to give him a show. After years of rejection by galleries it came as something of a surprise. In the meantime, Kurelek went to work as a part-time framer for Isaacs.
Kurelek’s autobiography ends with the first exhibit at Isaacs’ in l960, and a glowing account of his meeting with Jean Andrews, whom he married shortly after. They lived together for the remaining years of Kurelek’s life and raised four children. The autobiography is primarily the prologue to an astonishing outpouring of creativity and a meteoric rise to fame. After his first show there was scarcely a year without an exhibit in public or commercial galleries. He could not keep up with the demand for his work.
In the winter of l962-63 Kurelek travelled north to visit the Madonna House Apostolate. Situated in the wooded hill country of the Madawaska Valley, about two hundred miles north-east of Toronto, this community of Catholic lay people and priests had been founded by Catherine de Hueck Doherty (l896-l985), an exiled Russian Baroness. She and her community were to play a key role in the development of Kurelek’s spirituality. Born near Nijny-Novgorod, she was steeped in the spirituality of Russian Catholicism and Orthodoxy. God had given her two great gifts early in life: to know that He loved her, and to know that He was not loved. “Love is not loved,” she would often say. In l9l7 she had been in the crowd in front of the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg as Lenin declared the new order that would sweep away all her possessions and, more importantly, would devastate the religious soul of Russian culture, driving all that she loved underground or into exile. Despite her youth she understood what was about to happen, and stood weeping among the exultant crowd.
This extraordinary woman was to witness firsthand many of the major catastrophes of the twentieth century, not least of which was the moral disaster of affluent Western man, who possessed everything but struggled against chronic loneliness and despair. It was to be a century where life itself seemed radically devalued. As a nurse in World War I Catherine had stacked amputated limbs outside of an emergency surgery. She was shot at by Germans and later by Bolsheviks, then experienced starvation during her flight to Finland. She was present at the murder of a priest during the Divine Liturgy, and consumed the Eucharist after it had been desecrated by the murderers. As a journalist during the Spanish Civil War she had again seen the Eucharist desecrated and the bodies of dead nuns and priests exhumed and displayed in mocking parodies. She visited a nun raped by communists soldiers, who was dying of the wounds they inflicted by cutting off her breasts. In Russia, Spain, Germany, she saw many ruined churches, but she also observed people praying in the ruins. They had glimpsed what a church really is and turned toward the One who dwelt even among the ruins. She saw that this was no ordinary century. Her horror deepened when the victors, the just, dropped their bomb and their message on Hiroshima, ending a war and an age.
“People began to doubt the power of God to control the world,” she later wrote, “It seemed that the devil had won. Once again it seemed that the Church would be ruined.”
Her response to the new barbarism was to “prostrate myself, Russian style, on various dirty floors. I realize now, as I did then, that the Church needs prayer, for this is the time of the shaking of the foundations of the world.”
In the early l930s she founded “Friendship House” in Toronto. It was a storefront where the city’s poor could find a listening ear and an open heart, be fed and clothed. Within twelve years houses were opened in Ottawa, Hamilton, Harlem, Portland, and Chicago. Despite early success, her radical apostolate to the poor was resented, and accusations of “communism” (perhaps the cruelest irony of all) drove her from Toronto in l936. Two years later she opened Friendship House in Harlem. Her passionate and uncompromising insistence that Christ was being crucified in the American black people won her many friends and even more enemies. She suffered a harsh blow in l946 when her own staff at Friendship House in Chicago refused to accept her prophetic leadership.
In May of l947 Catherine arrived in Combermere, Ontario, for a period of recuperation. She and her second husband, Eddie Doherty, an American journalist, had decided to retire in a farm-house-cottage on the Madawaska River near the village. To all intents and purposes Catherine’s work in the lay apostolate appeared to be over. She was an exhausted, shattered woman, suffering what can only be called a nervous breakdown. During the first months in her new home, she could barely bring herself to walk the few hundred yards up the road to the local parish church to attend Mass. She trembled for days on end, and for several years afterwards this shaking would afflict her when the Chicago incident came to mind.
She waited, fasted, prayed, and began to serve the rural poor as a nurse and midwife. Gradually, laypeople and priests trickled into her cottage to visit, to talk and pray with her. Many stayed and formed the community which Catherine eventually named Madonna House. When she died in l985 she left behind more than twenty books on spirituality (a number that grows as her unpublished journals and letters are edited), among them the landmark works, Poustinia (l975), Sobornost (l977) and Fragments of My Life (l979). There are presently twenty-two field houses scattered across North America, South America, the West Indies, Africa and Europe. The community lives by begging and farming. Profits from the sale of recycled donations and handicrafts are sent on to the poorest places of the world. Members who have made final promises number around two hundred.
Upon Kurelek’s arrival, he was introduced to Catherine in the large dining hall of the now expanded main house. Kurelek, as usual, was not talkative, but he opened by saying, “I’m Ukrainian. And I’m a believer. But there’s a lot wrong with the Church. I don’t think the Church is what it should be.” An orthodox Catholic, he did not mean that the teaching, hierarchical Church was in error. He meant that the members of Christ’s Body were not following Christ wholeheartedly. Catherine agreed. She had written much about her love for the Church: the sinless Bride of Christ was also the sinful Bride of Christ; Christ was suffering literally in the sins and wounds of his members, in his Mystical Body.
“Christ is in agony until the end of the world,” she said.
A priest of the community offered to give Kurelek a tour of the Madonna House property. When Kurelek entered the bare room of a poustinia (a hermitage), he saw a print of the flagellated Christ on the wall. He was drawn to the image, looked at it closely, then collapsed on his knees and erupted in heartbroken sobs. The priest stood silently beside him and perceived this “as an amazing experience of God, of sorrow, of grace.” When the tears subsided, Kurelek remained on his knees for some time, gazing at the image with attention, very still, inwardly calm.
The relationship with Madonna House extended over many years. Towards the end of her life Catherine pointed out that it was largely a silent relationship, “without words.” The community loved him and he loved them. He exhibited paintings in their dining hall and from time to time he came to visit with staff members over a cup of tea. But his first language was art. The community remembered that he sought no special attention. He had a strong sense of presence about him that was due more to his stillness than to force of personality. In the l960s he was becoming famous but in Combermere little of this was known. At one point he offered to paint a large mural of the Canadian martyrs for the local parish, as a gift. But the idea was rejected, no one now recalls why. It is a measure of the man that he spoke not a word of recrimination about the spurning of so generous an offer. “His virtue was humility,” said Catherine after the artist’s death, “He had a great devotion to the Cross and so did I.”
In l974 he purchased a small farm across the river from Madonna House. It had poor soil, but it was nestled under a high hill that overlooked the valley. On the rock-face about three quarters of the way up, he painted a six foot high Byzantine cross. He and his family spent their summers and some holidays in the house at the base of the cliff. The artist desired to live there full-time but felt that his wife and family would not agree to such a move. He wished to live where the Cross was so well understood, and perhaps too he saw that it might be easier to carry it in the company of others who were living the same mystery. It was increasingly clear, however, that a very demanding apostolate had opened up for him in the city. He was more and more being asked to interact with a society that was growing hostile to Judaeo-Christian absolutes, a mission field which could not be ignored. He would be continually forced to deal with people who locked him into his past, assessing his life and work only against the background of his history of emotional illness. More than this, in the cultural life of the urban centres, the Christian vision was considered an anachronism, and those who believed in it were often thought to be maladjusted personalities in need of a crutch. This view in particular was difficult to refute, because he had so obviously been in need of a power greater than himself. Kurelek knew that this power was real, and that it was not anything so simple or utilitarian as a psychological crutch. It was the God who is a “consuming fire of Love” (Hebrews 12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24).
After his conversion Kurelek continued for a long time to be haunted by the fragility of his emotional life. Healing is a gradual process and often a lonely one. Neither he nor the Madonna House community discounted the benefits of psychology. But they knew that great confusion had spread in the modern world because certain schools of psychology were defining man strictly according to body and mind. Man is above all an incarnate spiritual being, and any “science” which attempts to heal the human person must approach him in that light. To rid man of awareness of his existential loneliness might not, in the end, be healing. To adjust him to a radically disordered society, might not be true mental health. The man wrestling on the edge of despair might be in the long run a more hopeful figure than the one who is content with the world as it exists.
There is no guarantee that a believer cannot stumble. In l963-64 Kurelek slipped back into depression. He and his wife’s first child had arrived and he was suffering the stress of life with a newborn, a difficult adjustment for any parent. Sleep-deprivation, a small, noisy apartment, and all attentions fixed, naturally enough, on the baby, took their toll. His wife recalls that he had set himself very high ideals regarding his art, and perhaps the production of paintings was faltering. A man who was introverted at the best of times, and who had to work at avoiding withdrawal and alienation, now began to lose ground. Jean interrupted him one day in the act of inflicting superficial lacerations on his wrists. Her reaction was unusual. She was angry and gave him a stern lecture on his responsibilities as a husband and father. This form of shock therapy proved more effective than psychiatry. It was his only attempt after release from Netherne hospital and it was never repeated. But it revealed the vulnerability that would remain with him to the end. After that brief stumble he went on to paint from a wound that was in the process of being healed, slowly, in God’s own time.
Loneliness and doubt are God’s gifts to those who have prophetic gifts. It is God’s method of keeping the prophet humble and dependent on His word, otherwise pride would destroy him. Despite the evidence of the extraordinary charisms which He had given Catherine, she too wrestled with her sense of personal unworthiness, her wounds, her anguish, and at times a radical temptation to doubt. This was Kurelek’s struggle also –– a struggle so lonely that it bordered at times on a sense of absolute abandonment. Catherine taught that a follower of Jesus not only shares in the pain of Christ, he is called to console the abandoned Christ. Kurelek had learned the first part on his own; the second part he was learning through Madonna House. By accepting day by day one’s faults and wounds, of struggling with them, sometimes overcoming, sometimes failing, the Cross is carried, the Lord consoled.
Kurelek gradually came to accept that the Christian is not a polished figurine, perfect and invulnerable. He remains fallen man, wounded man, involved in a life-long process of being restored in Christ. Most Christians are asked by God to bear some wound right till the end, but in a redeemed form, that is, in a form which no longer enslaves them. Henceforth, with grace, they can overcome the degrading acts to which the wounds and sins condemned them in the past. Saint Paul knew the reason for this:
As to the extraordinary revelations, in order that I might not become conceited I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and keep me from getting proud. Three times I begged the Lord that this might leave me. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for in your weakness my power reaches perfection.” . . . Therefore I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12: 7-10).
His relationship with his father remained a constant reminder of the primary wound. The damage inflicted in childhood and youth could not be effaced, but the artist’s assent to grace had begun a process of transfiguration. He was no longer overpowered by hatred and fear of his father; their relationship had become a source of insight. In his 1964 painting, In the Autumn of Life, for example, Kurelek depicts an atomic burst over the city of Hamilton, fourteen miles from his father’s farm. In the foreground, the family gathers for a photograph on the front lawn of the farmhouse. The patriarch of the Kurelek clan is surrounded by the generations and by prosperity at last. Yet across from the gathering is Christ nailed to a tree, surrounded by dogs licking his blood. Between this horrific detail and the one on the horizon there is an inexorable judgement on his father’s life: the man’s security and prestige are valueless. He must choose between salvation and hell.
In the Autumn of Life
Kurelek has been accused of spiritual bullying with such works. Does this painting provide the pictorial evidence to support the conjecture? Is there unconscious vengeance in the harshness of the image? This question cannot be discounted, but the painting should be considered in the light of his private relationship with his father. Hidden from the public eye was a pattern of respect for the person of his father which had remained unbroken since the artist’s conversion. What is operative in the public imagery is the same radical honesty regarding his family that he exercised about himself in the autobiography. It is done in the context of spiritual exhortation, a legitimate charism within the Church. He has the teacher’s sense that the errors of his own groping towards truth can inform others. His family’s indifference is the indifference of mankind. They are his most potent metaphor for the present spiritual crisis in the world. He speaks the truth, not as theory, but from the substance of his life. That he risked his tenuous relationship with his father in creating the image is evidence of his passion for truth. It exhibits a deep continuous anxiety that the fundamental wound in his family (and in human nature) be healed. He knew that disbelief kept his father locked in unforgiveness, which in turn perpetuated his imprisonment in unbelief. The painting may be intended, in part, to jolt his father out of this vicious cycle. Even so, it must be seen in context with a l964 series portraying the hardships and interior struggles of his father’s life. “I wish to honour my father,” he said of these paintings. There is understanding in them, but the artist does not divorce his sympathy from radical honesty. The prophetic impulse within him would have argued that to ignore the truth about sin is not charity. He has attempted what may, indeed, be impossible in a single image: to reconcile charity toward persons while remaining faithful to truth.
There is much to be learned here about the nature of forgiveness. It is not a denial of the past, nor feigning a perfect present. It is truth as well as mercy. It is openness to the possibility of continued injury. Kurelek and his father never learned to communicate with each other, though they could talk about many things in tandem. A few months before the artist’s death, at his farm in Combermere, Ontario, he and I looked over his field of corn ruined by drought. “My father is coming to visit soon,” he said. “When he sees this, I wonder what he’ll say.” There was a sad pensiveness in his voice, a mild apprehension, reflecting, perhaps, his knowledge that he would never be able to earn his father’s complete approval.
Though his parents were not effusive in expressing their affection, they had loved their children to the best of their ability. The artist’s younger brothers and sisters loved and respected them, and had difficulty understanding their brother’s criticisms. That the imperfections of their family had been laid bare in public was for them an added cause of pain. In the view of William Kurelek, however, that pain was redemptive, for himself, for the family, for the world. He had suffered in a way that the other children had not. He admitted that he was “hyper-sensitive” and had taken things too much to heart. But there was an objective reality to the memories, and those memories had played a primary role in the formation of his vision. He still longed for his father’s unqualified approval, and hoped for it with each new success. Yet even at the end of Dmytro’s life he would maintain that William should have been a doctor. Kurelek and his father were willing to continue the struggle to love even in a crippled relationship. The son had learned that forgiveness is a drawing of all unresolved suffering into the passion and death of Christ.
In Kurelek’s later work there is much to suggest that he was breaking through to new freedom. He had ceased to hate and fear his wounds, and perhaps saw hidden within them the wounds of Christ. The paintings of his last years express a greater fluidity and harmony. The lavish use of warm colors reveals a consciousness renewed by hope. The humour, the wisdom, and the light which grew in his work was evidence of a steadily progressing interior restoration. He had learned to draw life from the sign of the Cross written into his own being.
In the summer of l977 he began to feel ill, but was determined to make a significant journey. He had waited seven years for the Soviet government to grant him permission to visit his father’s village in the Ukraine, the ancestral root and the source of his pain. During this pilgrimage he hoped to gain insights into his father and into himself. He left in early September and returned to Canada seriously ill. He was admitted to hospital for exploratory surgery, which confirmed that he had untreatable cancer of the liver and pancreas. During the remaining weeks he was given a final kenosis.
He was afraid. He was anxious that so much work would never be completed. Perhaps he recalled the vision under the bridge in the desert, and also the final lines of his autobiography, “There is Someone with me. And he has asked me to get up because there is work to be done.”
Seven years previously he had written that he hoped he would not die suddenly, because he wanted to suffer for Christ, and he thought cancer might be the best way to do that. The role of pain in the Mystical Body of Christ is a difficult mystery to grasp. But Kurelek had seen, along with Saint Paul, that “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church” (Colossians 1:24). This is not to say that the act of redemption remained incomplete. This is, rather, a revelation of the mercy of God who permits man to share in the restoration of the world. Kurelek believed that his suffering, when united to the sufferings of Christ, could assist in the conversion of many souls. Dmytro visited him in hospital but their habitual inability to communicate on a deep level prevailed. Kurelek recognized in his physical torment a form of prayer which could be offered for his father. As he lay dying, he experienced considerable pain and accepted it without complaint. It is likely, hoewever, that his greatest sufferings during the final week were interior. He was afflicted by terrifying dreams. There were temptations against faith. He said that Satan wished to make him deny the grace of his conversion. It was a struggle waged by many souls in their last moments, a temptation to deny in the darkness what he had seen so clearly in the light. It was his final crucifixion. He was stripped down to the core of faith in utter powerlessness.
Father Robert Pelton of Madonna House visited Kurelek in hospital. He prayed with him, and the artist felt some peace afterwards. He told the priest that he was having visions of Toronto in flames. Three days later, on 3 November l977, he died.
There are several distinct streams in Kurelek’s painting. The best known, and the most consistently popular, is his “primitive” or folk painting, depicting scenes of ordinary life that strike familiar, charming, and humorous chords in his audience.
A second, and perhaps more abiding contribution is his anagogical work. Like his father, he was a storyteller in the tribal tradition. As his vision enlarged, this passing on of his people’s truths became parables which operated as narrative—on the surface of consciousness. On a more profound level, he brought his audience and himself to an awareness of the mystery and presence which impels all reality. One of his last works, Piotr Jarosz (l977), is an instance of this multidimensionality. A small human figure is seen from above, walking a straight road which bisects the prairie toward a vanishing point on the horizon where, barely visible, a small city rises. The landscape he traverses is a series of pastures, burnt fields, and bush being cleared. The sense of depth and distance is breathtaking. The vast solitude is stirring. Above everything there broods a stormy sky. On the narrative level it is a story, an illustration of the life of an early Polish settler who regularly walked eighty-five miles to and from Edmonton where he worked as a labourer to finance his homestead. It is a work about human character, about courage and persistence. On an interior level it expresses symbolically the journey from isolation to community. It may even express the longing of believers for the New Jerusalem, and the loneliness of the terrain which must be crossed to reach it. Life is still a battle and a sojourning in a strange land, but man is no longer condemned to wander forever. He can now say with Scripture: “All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognizing that they were strangers and sojourners upon the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). On yet a deeper level the painting approaches a tearing of the veil which covers the face of reality, an awareness which emerges only after meditation before the image. This is its mystical level, the word of a new created being which is so true and clear that it calls the viewer to silence. It is the gatekeeper of a mystery. This is perhaps the greatest role of art. By providing an exteriorized view of an interior landscape, the artist opens a window onto the infinite. This is an especially urgent vocation in an era which has drastically limited man’s sense of the infinite. Kurelek has done the added service of informing the viewer that the mystery is not only there, it is also beautiful.
A third stream, the one closest to Kurelek’s heart, and the least popular –– indeed the least known –– is his didactic work. In his l972 painting, Toronto, Toronto, for example, the artist situates Christ on the steps of Toronto’s old city hall, his arms opened wide to call and embrace the throngs of passersby. No one sees, no one hears. This is “collective man,” the “masses,” uniform, compacted and reduced to a very lonely crowd. Personal identity is lost. The frenzy of modern life deafens and blinds. The title refers to Christ’s lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, still murdering the prophets, and stoning messengers that are sent to you; how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings; and you refused. So be it! Your house will be left to you desolate . . .” (Matthew 23: 37-38).
Overcome by the forces of despiritualization, the modern person is now, more than ever, vulnerable to the forces of dehumanization. Neo-gnosticism’s attempt to re-inject various kinds of psuedo-religious significance into a despiritualized cosmos only heightens the sense of absurdity and temporarily delays the spread of despair. While ostensibly spiritual in style, it undermines some very important spiritual realities. For example, in de-emphasizing the value of individual being for the sake of an inexorable collective convergence, it generates several contradictions, and the implications for human freedom are not encouraging. The accelerating homogenization of culture on the planet is a sign that convergence may not be as healthy as it seems. The opportunities for global conflict might be lessened, and even eliminated one day, but the denial of basic human qualities could be as thorough a destruction of man. By contrast, diversity widens the pool of resources open to us in the difficult process of integrating freedom and responsibility, reason and faith, mercy and justice. A multiplicity of cultures provides a rich choice of lenses through which we can consider our nature and destiny, and our propensity to evil. The man with one eye and the man with two may describe the same object word for word, but the invisible dimension of depth is lost to the former, and it is the latter who we would prefer to see driving a car down a busy city street. The flattening effect in culture is the direct result of the loss of the transcendent dimension represented by a hierarchical vision of existence.
A primary element of Kurelek’s didactic work is his preoccupation with apocalypse. He was keenly aware of the apocalyptic nature of many movements in the contemporary Church, and its role as a central theme in sacred scripture. A future pope, (John Paul II), Catholic historians, visionaries, and philosophers were in agreement that the Church now faced an epic struggle against the powers of darkness. As the dramatic events of our times raced toward some unknown climax, numerous speculations arose and new attention was paid to Saint John’s Apocalypse, stimulating a plethora of interpretation. Kurelek, who had just barely survived the annihilating falsehoods of secularism, knew that evil is the power of the lie and that it is capable of seducing even the elect. Only a virile, orthodox Christianity would have the strength to withstand the coming storm.
The Book of Revelation prophesied that a great apostasy must come to pass before the rise of Antichrist. In the early decades of this century, Tyrrell and Loisy were spreading Modernism in the Catholic Church, to be only just checked by the 1907 papal encyclical, Pascendi, and by the 1910 oath required by the Church against Modernism. An apostasy was brewing everywhere, one that has erupted in the present generation with a vengeance. In fact, it is Modernism which has done most to discredit reflection on the Apocalypse in any real depth. Modernism is immanentist, in that it understands God primarily as a divine principle in man and in the plane of the material universe, and salvation as a linear historical process. It cannot grasp the Christian vision of apocalypse, which it tends to dismiss as irrational, fundamentalist, and morbidly pessimistic. Authentic Christian orthodoxy maintains that the “eschaton,” the culmination of history as a climax of sin and error, will be resolved only by the intervention of the transcendent God breaking into history in an extraordinary manner. By contrast, the new theologians attempt to “immanentize the eschaton,” as a purely historical process. In brushing aside consideration of the real meaning of the Book of Revelation, they deny that the New Jerusalem will be given by God after the devastation of the world by human folly. The New Jerusalem posited by apostasizing theologians is to be created by man, here and now. This reveals an extremely optimistic view of human nature.
Much of modern optimism bears no relationship to authentic Christian hope, which must always have the courage to see things as they really are. Christian realism is apocalyptic, for it stands ever waiting and watchful for the hour when the Bridegroom will arrive. But hope is a delicate virtue, developed by a process of maturing in faith. Kurelek’s realism was constantly misinterpreted as pessimism, and his jeremiads explained away by psychological determinism. He had projected his inner torments upon history and upon the cosmos itself, they said. It is true that in an era when despair is never far below the surface, Christian apocalyptic reflection runs certain risks: on one hand, a temptation to overfocus on the darkness of apocalypse, and on the other hand to neutralize it by calling it myth and symbol. Both reactions can be symptomatic of thinly-veiled, largely subconscious despair. It must always be remembered that the Apocalypse will be the deliverance of the world, and, alternately, if it displays some of the elements of myth, it is a myth that will actually come to pass. The Book of Revelation is the antithesis of mythology, a truth which Modernist demythologizers fail to understand.
Kurelek saw numerous modern thinkers using thought to negate thought, which he knew was a form of self-destruction. He had lived that way for many years before his conversion. He also understood that the parallel degeneration into cultic paganism was the desperation of a people starved for a spiritual life in a desacralized age. Without a transcendent God, the cosmos was curiously flat, and an unexpected by-product was that its citizens felt dehumanised without knowing why. Thus, spiritualities of any sort, especially those which promised (and delivered) strong visceral content and no accountability to God, looked very attractive to the modern mind.
Three Wise Men from the West
Though he had not fallen into cultic paganism, he had suffered intensely from the flattened, frozen universe of the rationalist gnostics. In all probability, if he had survived without conversion, he would have gone in the direction of cultism. During his years of unbelief, however, the spirit of the age had not yet won over a large portion of the populace of the Western world, though it had grasped power in Arts, Academy, and Politics, and its ideas were spreading everywhere. The mass of men remained imbued with some basic assumptions given to them by Christianity. It was still, on the surface, a Christian society, though it was liberalized, subjectivised, and crumbling rapidly. By the end of Kurelek’s life, secularism had become the dominant world-view everywhere.
The modern mind does not grasp that only superficially does the immanentized cosmos appear to be exalted when Being has been “decapitated.” In reality, every aspect of existence, including man, is reduced to the level of accident. No matter how much one praises the decapitated body, its life is short and deprived of higher meaning. During the brief transition period while the blood drains from the body (a century, after all, is not very long) there will be intoxicating illusions of omnipotence. The modern gnostic experiences the pleasures of power in tearing down what he calls the “mythos” of Christianity, forgetting that if it exhibits some elements of myth it is a myth that actually happened. Forgetting also that to re-create it in his own image is an act of colossal pride.
“God is dead,” wrote Nietzsche. “We have killed him and the stench of his corpse is over Europe.”
“He is dead,” echoed Jean-Paul Sartre a half-century later. “He spoke to us once and now he is silent; all that we touch is his corpse.” Sartre meant that we only thought he spoke to us. He did not consider the possibility that the real cause of the “silence” is our inability to hear. Pride deafens man. Pride moves him to fill the vacuum with his own “divinity.” It can take countless shapes and philosophical postures, but it amounts to man enthroning himself as the final arbiter of truth and untruth. He becomes the emperor of everything. But to his surprise, his empire is cold and empty. As he senses this he quickly dresses himself in new clothes. Fear of the void drives him to invent or reinvent myths to repopulate what seems a dead cosmos. Some will develop cults of pleasure or aesthetics. Others will return to the resurgent pagan cults of antiquity, revamped for the offspring of a materialistic society. G. K. Chesterton once pointed out that when man ceases to believe in God he does not then believe in nothing; he will then begin to believe in anything. In the end, man can only be betrayed or terrorized by a cosmos stripped of meaning. He will loathe it or worship it in the most craven pagan sense. Artists (and Christians in the process of losing their faith) are especially vulnerable to the lure of paganism, for it is a spirituality built on sensuality. Its promise of “sacred” knowledge and experience, its powerful emotional charge, and its emphasis on freedom and creativity are difficult to resist.
The false prophets of the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for this spiritual landscape. During the first half of the twentieth century their disciples appeared everywhere, and created the milieu which nearly destroyed Kurelek. Our present generation is now reaping the harvest of their labors. A new generation of false prophets exercises uncanny skill in creating alluring images of cosmos and history. A revived pantheism, for example, is offered in pleasing disguises as a replacement for the neglected incarnational spirituality of genuine faith. Heterodox cosmology has invaded several levels of the Christian community, ranging from many a Catholic university, parishes and centres of spirituality, to episcopal offices. Simultaneously orthodoxy is called into question everywhere in the Western world. The “mysticism” of materialism is becoming a new “orthodoxy.” Guilt is the great crippler, it maintains, therefore guilt must be eradicated. And if the conscience must be restructured, then the ancient teacher of the conscience must be radically transformed or suffer the consequences of being an oppressor of the brave new man. In this climate, an apocalypse is no longer wildly improbable. Whether or not what is growing up around us is the final Apocalypse remains to be seen. No man knows the day or the hour, but the Lord himself exhorted us to keep awake and watch.
Standing against the myths of materialism is the realism of the scriptures and the tradition of the Church. Kurelek was well-grounded in both, and referred to them repeatedly in explanations of his paintings. The apocalyptic trail winds throughout his work, growing stronger as the years progressed, returning him again and again to meditate on the relationship of man and government, and the will of God. Like all apocalyptics, he knew there would one day be a confrontation between the demands of these three parties. In his l948 essay on the Antichrist, Etienne Gilson says that “since men have refused to serve God, there is no longer an arbiter between them and the State which dominates them. It is no longer God, it is the State which judges them. But who, then, will judge the State?” Only God can do this. The judgement of the nations at the end of the world is not only an act of justice, and the chastisement of man not merely punishment. It is mercy. For God will not permit evil to continue to devour the good indefinitely. Love demands that at some point the great revolt be brought to a close, the cosmic argument concluded. For all those who undergo that event it will be a test by fire.
For the just man it will be a purification in the same way that a furnace is for smelting precious metals: “For who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire . . . ” (Malachi 3:2). This will be no gnostic fire that purports to create an alloy of good and evil. It will be a fire that separates the elements, burning away the dross to leave only that which is pure gold. The prophet Malachi utters a final word of hope: “Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom” (Malachi 3:24).
It is important to note the distinction between the anointed Prophets of the Lord and the prophetic role of all baptized believers. In the Old Testament the Prophet with a message of hope or consolation, rebuke or warning, or any combination of these, has been given by God a specific task. He is called; he is appointed; he must speak out. In the New Testament the coming of the Holy Spirit opens up some of those prophetic dimensions to all believers. We are to bear witness to the full message of salvation, in season or out of season. It would be neither correct nor prudent to assert that Kurelek was one of the company of Prophets obeying a definite command and fulfilling an ordained office. But one can safely say that he responded to the second role of prophet as witness, as bearer of a word of God, and as one who recounted in a dramatic way the words of the great Prophets. Specific predictions about times and places remain a role given only to a very small number of people, and even then they remain imprecise and conditional.
As regards specific times and moments, brothers, we do not need to write to you; you know very well that the Day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Just when people are saying, “Peace and security,” ruin will fall on them with the suddenness of pains overtaking a woman in labor, and there will be no escape. You are not in the dark, brothers, that the day should catch you off guard like a thief. No, all of you are children of light and of the day. We belong neither to darkness nor to night; therefore let us not be asleep like the rest, but awake and sober. (1 Thess 5:1-6).
The Church is rightly cautious about what it calls “private revelation.” Some of it she has approved, and it lies in the prophetic line, a rich tradition from which the believer can draw inspiration. Many such prophetic voices are now saying with one voice: in our times the cup of divine justice is full to overflowing. Iniquity covers the earth. Even the Church has been darkened as many of its members spread errors and sin in an interior apostasy that has not heretofore been equalled since the birth of the Church. Kurelek foresaw persecutions for the Church but he was not sure of the chronology of events leading up to the second coming of Christ. He maintained that he was not an Adventist, for he did not claim to know the times, places, or personalities of the apocalypse. But he did speculate about possible scenarios. At one point he conjectured that an anti-Christian State might arise from the ashes of a nuclear holocaust. He also considered the possibility that nuclear war might be the final stroke before the return of Christ. The Scriptures themselves offered a variety of interpretations. The many millennialist sects are evidence of how wide an interpretation can be extracted from the lush symbolism of the Bible’s apocalyptic references. Despite his lack of certainty about the exact character of the Apocalypse, he considered it best to envision it as it would probably appear at this time and in this place. At some point in history the actual final Apocalypse would occur. His task was to ask if man had reached that point. Kurelek believed that it had. The modern mind replied, “No, you are following a myth, a symbol of long-completed events. It cannot happen in this enlightened age.” Kurelek had to show them that the possibility was real enough.
Three main blocks of painting articulate his message on the subject:
The Glory to Man In the Highest series (painted 1964-66) was “a socio-religious satire” on the folly of human pride, though closer to Jeremiah than to Swift. Most of the paintings in this group are commentaries about the haves and the have-nots of the world, the sins of the affluent West and the rendering of accounts which must one day be given. This Is the Nemesis (l966) is the most frightening, because it starkly represents the destruction of a city by nuclear fire. The figure immolated at the height of a ladder is at once scaling a modern tower of Babel and crucified upon it. The warnings of the Old and New Testaments are implied here.
In l971 Kurelek exhibited the thirty paintings of The Last Days series which illustrated the apocalyptic prophecies of Jesus in Matthew 24. Like his predecessors Bruegel and Spencer, he situated the dramatic scenes in his own time, the farms and fields of his native prairie. In Nuclear Madonna a bald, burned mother tries to nurse her deformed infant while another child begs her for food. Another image depicts the desecration of the Eucharist in a ruined church, while beyond the hole in the wall one can see believers being led away by soldiers. In another, a crowd of people huddle in ditches filled with blood-red water while a fire-storm sweeps across the land. The images shocked and intrigued the sophisticated clientele of the Galerie Godard Lefort in Montreal where the show opened. It was precisely the effect Kurelek had hoped for—modern man had fallen into a drugged stupor and the artist had succeeded in uttering a loud shout: “Awake O sleeper from the dead, and Christ will give you light!” (Ephesians 5:14). This was an heroic effort on his part, considering the state of the intelligentsia who, for the most part, comprised the gallery-going crowd. They were disturbed, but were they converted?
This is the Nemesis
The educated élite of the West had been strongly influenced by the neo-pagan effort to neutralize the Scriptures. An American disciple of Jung, Joseph Campbell, for example, had written brilliant and richly textured treatises on the role of myth in culture. An ex-Catholic anthropologist, he wrote that all religions are merely “misunderstood mythologies.” In a book on the meaning of the hero he compared Matthew 24 to the fiery apocalypses of pagan mythology, leaving the reader with the sense that all religions are the same, and that apocalypse should not be taken literally. Chesterton pointed out that the position of such demythologists adds up to this: Since a truth has impressed itself deeply into the psyche of a vast number of people of varying times and cultures, therefore it simply cannot be true; it must be a metaphor for something else! The demythologist ignores the possibility that people of all times and places may have been informed at an intuitive level of an ultimate event destined to take place as a climax of history.
Some of Kurelek’s more powerful apocalyptic imagery imparts its message subliminally, instructing at a deeper level those who would ordinarily reject his didactic approach. During the l960s he painted several works about fire. One of his best known from this period is a scene which could occur on any farm: children are playing with matches in the hayloft of a barn, and they do not realize that when the fire gets out of control they will be unable to stop it or to escape. Kurelek could not resist titling it Our World Today (l968), and the painting found its way, significantly, into the collection of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of Canada. Such analogical images worked hand-in-hand with his subtler anagogical works, for example a 1960 painting titled The Burning Barn, which is the literal depiction of a scene Kurelek had witnessed as a child. The small human figures huddle in awe and terror before the power of the conflagration. The hideous red flames against the black night sky are almost diabolical. In another, Bear Trapped By Forest Fire (l977), Kurelek portrays a vignette from a natural drama: a bear climbs higher and higher on a thin dead tree that lies in the path of a forest fire. At a deeper level it is a poignant commentary on man’s attempts at self-preservation. There is no escape from reality; there is only one passageway through to eternal life.
Kurelek believed that the world faced a catastrophic punishment, and he assumed that this would be a nuclear war. If man ignored the warnings brought to him by the prophets, he would be left to his own devices; he must suffer the consequences of his own sins. The development of atomic weapons had suddenly placed into human hands the ability to demolish everything on the face of the planet. When J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the inventors of the bomb, watched the first atomic explosion, he recalled a passage from the Hindu sacred poem the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” Many of the other scientists present that day, most of them rationalists without any interest in religion whatsoever, would later recall their reactions in the language of myth and theology. It was indeed a religious event, the apotheosis of man’s will. The vertigo from such colossal power might prove irresistible. To destroy, and to destroy absolutely, is to be in a sense above life –– a diabolical mutation of “transcendence.”
The Scriptures asserted that a time would come in history when the rejection of God would be so universal that man would draw down upon himself the judgement of a bitter fire. Kurelek was so certain that the catastrophe would come in his lifetime that he began construction of a bomb-shelter that was to be situated beneath the back yard of his Toronto home. He believed that there would be a new heavens and a new earth which would be given to man after a world-wide disaster. A purified, faith-filled mankind would be called upon to rebuild the world. Later, when Kurelek purchased the farm at Combermere, he built a cinder-block shelter up against the cliff face, and had it covered over with gravel, leaving only a single door exposed in the side of the mound. It was directly below the sign of the Cross. Like Noah he received considerable mockery over the project.
It is a measure of the man that he did not merely seek a private escape. He spoke often of his premonitions in public talks, writings, and, of course, in the apocalyptic paintings. The artist’s typed explanations and exhortations were usually posted beside each painting. And when introducing his work on opening nights he would use the opportunity to evangelize. People were surprised at the firm conviction in his voice, the strong tone beneath the gentleness, for they knew he was a very shy man. Even to the end of his life he could barely bring himself to look others in the eye during conversations, and then only for a flashing glance. But when it came to the proclamation of a message that he believed was his God-given role to deliver, there was no timidity. He was frequently met with resistance. His message was considered morbid, demoralizing. Critics attributed his forebodings to an unhappy childhood. Paintings such as Ukrainian Canadian Prairie Tragedy (l974), depicting a scene of a farm family gazing into the charred ruins of their burnt barn, were evidence for them that the traumas of his childhood had colored his whole outlook. He was, they said, a pessimist looking for the next disaster to happen, projecting his fears onto the world. They did not use the word paranoia but it was implied. They failed to see that God had often taken his prophets through devastating experiences in order to write into their beings the particular truths he wished them to communicate to his people. One thinks especially of Jeremiah in this regard. Kurelek wrote, “It is agony sometimes being misunderstood or sneered at, but whatever I can do now to be the sort of person He can use for His purposes I must try to do.” (Diary, l967).
In a l968 letter, he wrote, “This catastrophe I feel approaching is going to fall on us because we have forgotten God’s laws . . .” Kurelek used the word “us.” He did not say “them” as if he were exempt from the human condition. He understood completely his solidarity with all humanity. Nor could he for a moment protest a violated world were he not imbued with the hope that a better one is still possible for us. Only Christian realism can gaze without flinching into the depths of a very dark age. Prophetic vision of this sort is given only to those who have become poor, who have understood and accepted their existential poverty. In that freedom (a freedom which they must continually rediscover) they arrive at a secret place of the heart where they are given everything.
On the seventeenth anniversary of Kurelek’s death, I walked through the woods of his farm in Combermere. The property had recently been acquired by Madonna House. The bush road from the house to the cliff was overgrown with weeds and a young forest of saplings had grown up in the last hundred yards of trail leading to the bomb shelter. I found its door torn off and the interior covered with leaves and the droppings of wild animals. This cement ark had been designed to withstand atomic blasts, but it had proven vulnerable to the lowly porcupine. Had the artist lived, he would have no doubt laughed over this irony and painted a humorous picture of it.
I stood in the darkness of its interior and prayed for the soul of Kurelek. The enormity of his achievement, and his sacrifice, hit me with renewed force. Some lives are marked by their times with an inexorable plenitude of meaning. When such a person dares to enter the public arena in a condition of self-exposure he lays himself bare to attack and misinterpretation. This is the risk William Kurelek took in the hope that his suffering and his message might help to provide the material of a better world. The artist and the prophet are flawed human beings called to deliver a word to a people who no longer hear, no longer see. Such lives are often heroic, and especially so when the subject is at once an artist and a prophet. His struggle to reconcile those two absolutes leaves an indelible mark upon his times.
The catastrophe he anticipated appears to be forestalled for the time being. New hopes are rising as one by one the overt tyrannies have toppled in Europe. In the obscure designs of the great cosmic revolt against God, the evil one who works to undermine the divine order may have found it unnecessary to sustain such artificial regimes. The Gulag is no longer needed, the harvest of repression is full. For there now exists in Eastern and Central Europe a massive population deformed in its concepts of man and freedom, largely reduced to Homo Sine Deo, man without God. This new man yearns for the decadence of the West as if our toys and drugs are icons of freedom. Has he been liberated from an austere and perversely moralistic communism just to become like us? Amoral, dedicated only to our appetites, and barely able to create a lasting work of art or literature?
At the same time the collapse of the totalitarian states is exposing what may be the greatest sign of hope in our times: a Church of Suffering is emerging from the catacombs. It is greatly reduced in numbers from prorevolutionary days. It is stripped, purified, visionary, rich in worship, story, art and song. This remnant may yet face new reigns of terror before the millennium arrives. We shall have much to learn from them. Certainly this is the seed from which will spring any authentic new civilization. It has prevailed over unmasked totalitarianism while most people of the West gazed, and still gaze, trustingly at the benign mask which covers the face of our own tyrant. We, no less than they, now lie in the greatest danger. Gazing into the darkness of a long night we can see the first rays of dawn. But it must be remembered, the century is not yet over.
The Canadian painter and writer, Michael O’Brien, received much encouragement from William Kurelek in the early years of his artistic career. He lives with his wife and six children near Combermere, Ontario.
From January 28th to April 29th, 2012, a large restrospective exhbition of the paintings of William Kurelek can be visited at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario.
Visit the gallery’s website:
Several Kurelek books are still in print, and are available through his Canadian publisher, Tundra Books. See Tundra’s website at: