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

Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Downsview, Ontario
The Collection of TransCanada PipeLines Limited, Calgary
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
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.

Share this item with your friends

William Kurelek
(1927 - 1977) RCA

Kurelek was the son of Ukrainian immigrant farmers. He grew up during the Great Depression on a grain farm in Alberta and then a dairy farm in Manitoba. His hard-working father thought that his son was lazy and was not pleased when he decided to pursue his studies in art. His father's rejection was to haunt him all of his life. Kurelek studied art at the University of Manitoba where he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1949. He worked in lumber camps to raise money for his art studies and did other odd jobs. He then studied six months at the Ontario College of Art but found he needed more freedom to develop at his own pace and interest, preferring to teach himself through books.

He sailed for England in 1952 where he found a happier environment, a more tolerant acceptance for what he wanted to paint. He also apprenticed himself to a picture framer, Frederick Pollock, from whom he learned this exacting craft. 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.

He returned to Toronto in 1959, and visited Avrom Isaacs, looking for a job as picture framer. It was his paintings which caught the eye if Isaacs, who became his art dealer. In 1960, Kurelek held his first one man show at the Isaacs Gallery. By the time of his death in 1977, Kurelek had produced over 2000 paintings. Many of Kurelek's painting were produced to accompany books for children. For these he won several awards including the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Book Award for A Prairie Boy's Winter and Lumberjack, and the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians Illustrators Award for A Prairie Boy's Summer.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979