Manitoba History: Review: Michael D. O’Brien, William Kurelek: Painter & Prophet
by Marilyn Baker
Michael D. O’Brien, William Kurelek: Painter & Prophet. Ottawa: Justin Press, 2013, 161 pages. ISBN 978-0-9919342-1-8, $25.95 (paperback)
The life story of Canadian-born William Kurelek (1927-1977) is well known. He wrote two autobiographies (one published posthumously) and gave frequent interviews in which he explained his art and his life. At a very young age, he began to make art and to imagine himself becoming a professional artist. After graduation from the University of Manitoba, he enrolled in art schools in Canada and Mexico. In 1952, he relocated to England where he sought professional help for self-diagnosed psychological problems. He commenced psychotherapy, and, after a half-hearted suicide attempt, moved on to electroconvulsive shock treatments. His autobiographies, both titled “Someone With Me” (that someone being God), described his gradual steps toward religious belief. In 1957, he became a Roman Catholic convert. Two years later, he returned to Toronto where success as an artist came surprisingly fast. Religious-themed paintings, morality-infused message art, and warnings about the coming end of the world were popular subject matter choices, alongside his other more obviously secular contemporary and historical themes.
It has been almost forty years since Kurelek died, yet interest in him remains strong. The most recent proof of this, besides the high prices collectors are willing to pay for major (and sometimes even minor) Kurelek paintings, is the large exhibition, “William Kurelek: The Messenger,” which travelled to three Canadian art museums in 2011-2012. Michael D. O’Brien’s recent book: William Kurelek: Painter & Prophet is another example of the continuing interest.
O’Brien is a Roman Catholic author of fiction and nonfiction books and a painter of religious themed paintings. O’Brien (b. 1948) met Kurelek in the 1970s and became a fan. O’Brien’s 2013 book is not a new appreciation of Kurelek’s life and art. Rather it is a collection of previously published essays which O’Brien wrote in the 1980s and which, with very minor changes, he has turned into a book. In Chapters 1 and 2 of his “new” book, O’Brien summarizes Kurelek’s well-known life story, including the trials and tribulations of his childhood and his early adulthood before his religious breakthrough. O’Brien carries Kurelek’s story forward to 1977. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kurelek was an exceedingly successful, widely exhibited and much admired Canadian artist. Nevertheless, O’Brien sees a darker side to the story. He believes that Kurelek was not appreciated by the Canadian art establishment: “He [Kurelek] was an anachronism in the minds of many, a stumbling block to the secular humanists who largely controlled the organs of public and commercial culture” (p. 48). Such claims are hard to prove or disprove, and O’Brien offers little in the way of solid evidence to support his views. O’Brien identifies Barry Lord, a former editor of artscanada, and Christopher Hume, a Toronto-based Canadian journalist, as high on the list of Kurelek detractors. However, Lord, a Marxist, did like Kurelek’s paintings of hard working, ordinary people a great deal, something O’Brien does concede. O’Brien is perhaps more distressed by Patricia Morley, a Concordia University English and Canadian Studies professor and the author of what is still the most reliable source on Kurelek’s life: Kurelek: A Biography (Macmillan of Canada, 1986). O’Brien characterizes Morley as an Anglican with too liberal values, and as a feminist who did not have a proper understanding of the “grace and the movements of the Holy Spirit” in Kurelek’s art (p. 56). Morley, who devoted more than six years to researching Kurelek’s life, eventually come to believe that some of Kurelek’s memories were mistaken or misconstrued. Morley exercised what most biographers would consider due diligence in examining the evidence. How much of an ogre was Kurelek’s father really? How oppressed had Kurelek been in his childhood years? How good was Kurelek’s memory of large and small events?
It was not O’Brien’s intention to question the accuracy of Kurelek’s life story. His purpose was to examine Kurelek’s art from his own Roman Catholic perspective and to situate him within a Roman Catholic context. O’Brien promises in the introduction to his collected essays that it is his intention to provide for Kurelek what a “person writing about himself can remain unaware [of] … the full significance of his own labours, his sacrifices, his greatness, and his weakness” (p. 10). O’Brien, however, found few if any weaknesses worthy of mentioning.
One of O’Brien’s most interesting chapters is his discussion of Kurelek’s connections to Madonna House, which he describes as a “community of Catholic lay people and priests” (p. 105). It was there that Katherine Doherty, its founder, promoted pietism, social justice and a decidedly ascetic version of Roman Catholicism. O’Brien believes that, “She and her fellow members of the apostolate” played “a significant role in the formation of Kurelek’s spirituality” (p. 105). Whether Doherty shaped Kurelek’s spirituality or Doherty and Kurelek were soul mates who walked within similar parallel lines is something that O’Brien does not really sort out, though he appears to favour the former view.
In large swathes of O’Brien’s book, however, readers may be forgiven for thinking that they have wondered into a book about something which has little real connection to Kurelek’s paintings or to his life story. They would be right. A discussion of the voting patterns of Catholics and Protestants in the years preceding the rise of Nazi Germany, and a spirited defense of the Papacy against charges that it was soft on the Nazis in the years leading up to the Second World War, are surely among O’Brien’s most egregious digressions (p. 131). O’ Brien’s discussion of Pope Paul VI’s views on the role that Catholic artists should play in the promotion and propagation of Roman Catholicism, its beliefs and values (pp. 51-2), and Pope John Paul II’s similar encouragements to artists to put their art in the service of their religion (p. 62), is a more acceptable context for understanding Kurelek’s inclination to remember Christ’s sufferings and sacrifices and to record and enumerate mankind’s failings, his less deadly and most deadly of sins. Pope John Paul II’s views (as quoted in O’Brien, p. 134) on the strains and stresses of modern life, “We are now facing the final confrontation,” are echoed in Kurelek’s own written statements and in many of his paintings in which he explicates the horrors of modern life. Nuclear clouds go off in Kurelek’s paintings; “murder” (abortion) is condoned and made easy. Both in his paintings and in his writings Kurelek communicates the message that man’s sinfulness and failure to follow in the way of the Cross will have potentially catastrophic consequences.
It is unfortunate that O’Brien devotes so much space in his essays to putting his own thoughts into Kurelek’s head rather than relying on Kurelek’s own statements, which are the plausible evidence of what was going on in Kurelek’s mind. When O’Brien does get around to discussing specific Kurelek paintings, for example, Kurelek’s In the Autumn of Life, 1964 (a nuclear cloud is in the background) and Kurelek’s Bad Company (from the “Temptation in the Desert” series of 1975), his discussions of Kurelek move to more obviously solid ground. However, O’Brien’s larger thesis that art has strayed from its formerly high-minded spiritual objectives—a fall from grace, which O’Brien sees as beginning in the late Renaissance and coinciding with the Reformation—is difficult to take very seriously. O’Brien’s casting of Kurelek as a victim of the Canadian critical establishment and as a hero, fighting against spiritually deficient modern art, is unquestionably a fascinating ramble, but ultimately not a very convincing thesis.
Page revised: 19 November 2015