Artwork by William Kurelek,  Hot Day in Kensington Market

William Kurelek
Hot Day in Kensington Market

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1972 lower right; titled and inscribed “from ‘Toronto’ series” on the reverse of the framing
24 x 30 ins ( 61 x 76.2 cms )

Sold for $472,000.00
Sale date: May 29th 2018

Provenance:
Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Downsview, Ontario
The Collection of TransCanada PipeLines Limited, Calgary
Exhibited:
Toronto: A Series of 20 Paintings and One Drawing, The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto, October 10 – 31, 1972, no. 21
William Kurelek, A Retrospective Exhibition 1942-1972, The Art Gallery of Windsor, January 6 – 30, 1974, no. 48
William Kurelek: Multicultural Canada, Multicultural History Society of Ontario Gallery, Toronto, November 23 – December 6, 1987, no. 1
Literature:
William Kurelek fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, MG31-D231, Vol. 8, File 10, hand-written description of “Hot Day in Kensington Market” by William Kurelek, undated
William Kurelek fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, MG31-D231, Vol. 8, File 10, hand-written introduction of “O Toronto” by William Kurelek, undated
Avrom Isaacs fonds, York University, Toronto, 1996-036/020 (8), typed Isaacs Gallery listing and price list for Toronto exhibition, October 1972
Kay Kritzwiser, “Kurelek, Roberts: A Sense of Identity”, Globe and Mail, Toronto, October 14, 1972
William Kurelek, O Toronto, Don Mills, 1973, introduction by James Bacque (unpaginated), page 12 and reproduced page 13
William Kurelek, A Retrospective Exhibition 1942 - 1972, exhibition catalogue, The Art Gallery of Windsor, 1974, listed, unpaginated (no. 48)
We and the World: The Ukrainian Magazine, September - October 1977, cover, photograph of William Kurelek with “Hot Day in Kensington Market”
Joan Murray, Kurelek’s Vision of Canada, Oshawa, 1982, page 72
Christopher Hume, “Popular Painter’s Demons Never Really Laid to Rest”, The Toronto Star, October 5, 1986, reproduced
William Kurelek: Multicultural Canada, exhibition pamphlet, Multicultural History Society of Ontario Gallery, 1987, listed, unpaginated (no. 1), reproduced on the cover
Andrew Kear, “Incarnation on the Prairies: The Theology of William Kurelek’s Ethnic Consciousness”, William Kurelek: The Messenger, Altona, Manitoba, 2011, page 97
“Even during my brief stay at the Ontario College of Art on Nassau Street, I was fascinated by the old-country charm of Kensington Market… in the area near College and Spadina. …I have tried to depict one of those hot sultry Toronto days, as well as the ethnic interest of the market. Part of this is achieved by the underpainting in a hot colour, and by many references to heat in the painting. I also tried to treat the major nationalities now operating the shops there – Jewish, Hungarian and Portuguese.” - William Kurelek

“Hot Day in Kensington Market” is a masterwork by one of Canada’s most masterful of painters, William Kurelek. New to the public market, hailing from a prominent corporate collection, this work is a joyous celebration of the artist’s desire to depict a hot sultry day showing the “old-country charm of Kensington Market.” Ironically, when the artist had first lived in the city in 1949, he was “bitter and unhappy,” but, as he tells us, “by a strange alchemy there took place something akin to the common plot of Harlequin romances. The hero or heroine ends up falling for the very person they hate or fear.” He vowed to return to the city one day, and did so in 1959, buying a home for his family and revisiting the haunts of his student days, seeing these places with the eyes of experience and perspective.

Here we have a delightful, boisterous work that is a riot of exuberant life. In viewing it, one feels the desire to elbow one’s way through the crowd and up to the watermelons, choose one, slice it open and combat the heat. We have sweating shopkeepers, melting ice cream cones, streaming sunshine, ladies in sundresses and men with their shirtfronts unbuttoned, all caught in a stream of busy market activity. Kurelek’s remarkable technique is displayed everywhere; from his scribe-like use of a dry pen to scratch curlicues into the wet paint depicting various fruits and vegetables, to the white dots of paint used to show reflection on fruit as it catches the sun, to the full finish he gives to even the most distant parts of the scene. In addition to the detail and finesse, there is vignette after vignette of market day charm. A boy teases a cat out of the shade beneath the crates of chickens, a display of shelled peas is described as being “Fresh From the Pod,” a shopkeeper in the more distant crowd points out the electric fans to an overheated shopper, while beyond them yet another man throws his jacket over his shoulder while casually sneaking a glance at an attractive woman. All of this happens under the glaring sun. The scene is “HOT HOT,” as the license plate on the red car heading out of the picture states.

Kurelek’s desire to depict the various nationalities operating the shops has also been met, we have the Hungarian Bakery, Fleischmann’s butcher shop, and the Portuguese Foods and Fish Market. These shops create a sense of space in the work but also serve to take us deeper into the scene, even right up and directly into the shops themselves. We feel welcome to squeeze in alongside the man – shopkeeper or customer – who wipes sweat from his bald head in the shade of the fish market doorway. True to his description, Kurelek has used a sunshiny yellow to underpaint many places in the work, and the result is an overall brightness which furthers the mood of a wonderful, if not sweaty, summer day. There are, as we know from the artist’s notes, “about 15 references to heat.” On the right side of the scene in what might be the most entertaining moment in the work, we find a couple crossing the street carrying bread and other shopping. They are dressed more warmly than such a hot day would merit - he wears a coat and hat and she a scarf. In a moment of characteristic Kurelekian humour, the man has stepped in something sticky, presumably chewing gum, or perhaps something worse, but has not yet noticed the mess underfoot. Only the chicken in the topmost of the green-lidded crates seems to let out a mirthful squawk of alert.

In scrutinizing Kurelek’s work, one often looks for a reference to his world view, which was heavily influenced by his conversion to Catholicism and his conviction that mankind faced imminent apocalypse. Here, there is no reminder of impending doom, instead we find a small yet fascinating reminder of the Kennedy assassinations, which had happened in 1963 and 1968, in the decade before “Hot Day in Kensington Market” was painted. Two small portraits hang over the orange awning of the corner shop on the far side of the street. They are set together in a blue frame, and below the images, scratched into the blue, we can just make out the incised words “The Kennedy Martyrs.” Ambiguous enough to be perplexing but specific enough to intrigue us, the words of Kurelek’s long-time Toronto dealer Avrom Isaacs come to mind, “You think you have acquired a nice prairie landscape, but after a while you realize that there is a great deal more there than meets the eye.” Therein lies the endless fascination of William Kurelek.

“Hot Day in Kensington Market” was first shown in the exhibition “William Kurelek: The Toronto Series/Toronto: A Series of 20 Paintings and One Drawing” held at The Isaacs Gallery in October of 1972. Kurelek’s handwritten notes for the exhibition set out his purpose clearly. “This time,” he states, “I’m venturing into a new subject what [sic] one might call depicting the soul of a city.” Twenty-one works captured various parts of Toronto in all four seasons and at various times of day. “Hot Day in Kensington Market” was mentioned in most reviews of the show. The Globe and Mail called it “another brilliant documentation that was snapped up by a collector born in the area – and no wonder. This is Kurelek’s genre painting at its most successful.” It was illustrated in the book “O Toronto: Paintings and Notes by William Kurelek”, published subsequently. As noted in the book’s introduction by James Bacque, the artist has embraced his new home with the full force of his personality, drive, and unique artistic vision. “William Kurelek” he states, “paints in Toronto as if the city were his.”

We extend our thanks to Lisa Christensen, Canadian art academic and the author of three award-winning books on Canadian art, for contributing the preceding essay.

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William Kurelek
(1927 - 1977) RCA

Born on a farm near Willingdon, Alberta in 1927, William Kurelek created paintings that explored the reality of farm life during the Depression, with a focus on Ukrainian experiences in Canada. Kurelek’s parents immigrated from Western Ukraine to Alberta during the second major wave of Ukrainian immigration to the province in 1923. In 1934, Kurelek’s family moved to Manitoba, near Winnipeg, due to falling grain prices and a fire that destroyed their home. Upon moving to Manitoba, Kurelek began attending school at the Victoria Public School.

Influenced by the apprehension surrounding the Depression, World War I, and the instability of farming, Kurelek focused on his studies. However, his father did not approve. While Kurelek’s father valued physical labor on the farm, Kurelek concentrated on school and drawing, which caused tension in his household. As a child, Kurelek covered his room in drawings from literature, dreams, and hallucinations. At school, Kurelek’s classmates were enthralled by his stories and drawings.

In 1943, Kurelek and his brother attended Isaac Newton High School in Winnipeg. While in Winnipeg, he frequented Ukrainian cultural classes offered by St. Mary the Protectress. In 1946, Kurelek enrolled in the University of Manitoba studying Latin, English, and history. While in university, Kurelek’s mental health spiraled, which he later self-identified as depersonalization.

After university, in 1948, Kurelek’s family relocated to a farm near Hamilton, Ontario. The next fall, in 1949, Kurelek began studying at the Ontario College of Art working towards a career in commercial advertising. While in school he was uninterested in the competitiveness and emphasis on earning high grades. So, he decided to study with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During his hitchhike to Mexico, Kurelek experienced his first mystical experience while sleeping in the Arizona desert. In this vision, a robed figure asked him to look after his sheep. Upon his arrival to Mexico, Kurelek learned that Siqueiros had departed, and the program was under new direction by Sterling Dickinson. Dickinson’s program was more informal and allowed Kurelek to become aware of social issues and develop his belief system.

Kurelek returned to Canada in 1951 and traveled to England in 1952 where he was admitted into a psychiatric treatment center at London’s Maudsley Hospital. The doctors noted the severity of his illness as well as his artistic talent. After his discharge, Kurelek traveled throughout Europe to view works by Northern Renaissance painters, such as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosh. In 1953, Kurelek was readmitted into Maudsley, then transferred to Netherne Hospital in Surrey, which had a cutting-edge therapy program. He continued to paint during this time. In early 1955, Kurelek was discharged and returned to London where he worked at an art framing studio, apprenticing with Frederick Pollock.

“Stephen Franklin in ’Weekend Magazine’ described his years in England as follows, ‘In seven years Kurelek found both happiness and sadness in London. His painstaking fool-the-eye paintings of pound notes and other objects found their way into three Royal Academy summer shows, but he was increasingly bothered by eye trouble for which there was no physical cause. He plumbed the depth of emotional despair, contemplated suicide, and wound up in hospital for more than a year. It was here that he began his conversion – from boyhood membership in the Orthodox Church and subsequent atheism – to Catholicism which has deeply affected his life since.’

It was there that he drew many self-portraits and scenes of farm life from his youth. He also developed his unique style of outlining the drawing with a ballpoint pen, using coloured pencils for texture and adding details in pen. Careful examination of his drawings reveals images full of realism with minute details of things like cots, clothes and even insects. Under the pen of William Kurelek, prairie farm scenes and landscapes came to life.”

Kurelek permanently returned to Canada in 1959. Later that year he met Avrom Isaacs, of Isaacs Gallery, who invited him to work in his gallery’s frame shop and hosted his first solo exhibition in 1960. In 1962, Kurelek married Jean Andrews and they relocated to the Beaches area in Toronto. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he began painting in a “fire and brimstone” style and constructed a fallout shelter in his basement, which eventually became his studio. He visited Ukraine in 1970 and 1977 and during this period he took a multicultural approach to his art. After his second trip to Ukraine he was admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and soon passed away from cancer.

Literature Sources:
Andrew Kear, “William Kurelek: Life and Work”, Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2017 (https://aci-iac.ca/art-books/william-kurelek)