Artwork by William Kurelek,  Judas in Hell

William Kurelek
Judas in Hell

mixed media on paper
dated 1961 on the Isaac’s Gallery label verso; titled on a remnant of the original framing (attached verso)
19.25 x 19 ins ( 48.9 x 48.3 cms ) ( subject )

Auction Estimate: $20,000.00$15,000.00 - $20,000.00

Price Realized $24,780.00
Sale date: November 20th 2018

Isaac’s Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
Kurelek’s response to Malcolmson quoted in Ramsay Cook, William Kurelek: A Prairie Boy’s Visions, William Kurelek Memorial Lectures, 1978. Reprinted from the Journal of Ukrainian Studies, Volume 5, 1980, pages 45 and 46
William Kurelek, Someone With Me, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1973, pages 359, 363-64
As a cornerstone of the artist's practice, religious symbolism and motifs are among some of Kurelek's most complex and insightful oeuvres. Having a long history of battling his own demons with mental illness, Kurelek had documented in detail his own struggles with good and evil, particularly when converting to Catholicism. Through this process, the artist grappled with questions of morality and worked through many of his quandaries through his artistic process.

A bold and graphic work, “Judas in Hell” is a heavily symbolic piece rooted in biblical and mythological prose. The titular Judas appears to be submerged in the artist's rendering of hell. The inky black body of water appears to reference the River Styx, the principle river in the Greek underworld forming the border between the underworld and the world of the living. Floating safely on the surface of this river, the image of the sacred heart protected by a globus cruciger symbolizing Christ's divine love for humanity. The globus cruciger—the orb and cross—is a classic religious symbol dating to early medieval religious iconography. It is the Christian symbol of authority where the cross represents Christ's domination of the orb of the world. Here, Kurelek uses the symbol to signify goodness over evil—Judas. Visually, Kurelek places Judas in Hell and the sacred heart safely above, depicting two worlds and a religious binary of good and evil.

On his practice of marrying his own imagination and medieval adaptations in his contemporary practice of the time, Kurelek responded to his critics, directed at Harry Malcolmson in particular, stating: “Did Hieronymus Bosch, a recognized master in representation of Hell himself go to Hell, and come back before he tackled it? No one has come back from the dead to record his experiences there and yet great classical writers like Milton and Dante waded right into it. Obviously they must draw their experience of those things partly from similar earthly experiences partly from personal or mystical intuition.”

In his autobiography, Kurelek further explains in detail: “In the end in this study I launched of Catholics, I found I had to accept the standard Christian approach to the problem. And it is this: leave the final judgment of every individual to God. Only He truly knows a man's heart.” He continues, “We forget that this life is not a resting place but a testing place for the next and final one.”

“Judas in Hell” has been executed with Judas still with his noose wrapped around his neck signifying Judas' suicide by hanging upon learning that Christ was to be crucified as a cause of his betrayal. Judas had later attempted to return the money paid by the chief priests in exchange for his action, however he was denied. The attempt to atone failed Judas and overcome with the consequences of his actions, he took his life—a sin in and of itself.

The work is imaginative and surreal, blending classic mythologies, medieval symbolism and visual languages. Kurelek pointedly brings light to the consequences of sin and the perseverance of good over evil. It is not written or interpreted that Judas had in fact been damned to hell, however this is a classic example of Kurelek's interpretation of biblical narrative and his own artistic vision married in his artworks.

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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 mother’s family settled in Canada during one of the first waves of Ukrainian immigration in 1899 before the painter’s father arrived in Alberta from Western Ukraine during the second major wave 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 (