Artwork by William Kurelek,  Brothers

William Kurelek

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1971 lower right; titled on the reverse of the artist’s frame
24 x 36 ins ( 61 x 91.4 cms )

Sold for $95,000.00
Sale date: November 19th 2019

Acquired directly from the artist
Private Collection, Ontario
William Kurelek Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, MG 31 D231, transcript of William Kurelek’s handwritten notes, “Personal Philosophy and Beliefs 1966-1972”, Volume 8, page 2
William Kurelek, Someone With Me: The Autobiography of William Kurelek, Toronto, 1980, page 39
William Kurelek was a prolific artist, completing well-over 2,000 paintings and drawings before his premature death in 1977. “Brothers” is an excellent example of a “memory” painting, albeit one ostensibly representing the recollections of the patron who commissioned the work, not those of the artist. Commissioned by the same collector who had already acquired “Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Evening” (see lot 31) from the artist, “Brothers” is unapologetically sincere and nostalgic. And yet, in line with Kurelek’s best memory work, it is also a more nuanced painting than it appears at first glance. “Brothers” attends to some of the artist’s deeply held beliefs, namely his recognition that all memories are not so much records of the past as they are registers of its fleeting intangibility.

Kurelek came by his interest in memory honestly. Born in 1927 at Whitford, Alberta, east of Edmonton, he grew up in a family that had been profoundly shaped by struggle and hardship. His mother’s kin, the Huculaks, had come to Western Canada in 1899 from the Ukrainian village of Borivtsi, in northern Bukovyna. Seeking greater stability and opportunity, their arrival corresponded with the first significant wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. Kurelek’s father was born in and, following the devastation wrought by the First World War, fled from the same town as the family of his future wife, whom he wed in 1925. In 1934 the Kureleks relocated to a dairy farm north of Winnipeg.

William Kurelek’s recollections of his formative years in Manitoba exemplify the bulk of the subject matter comprising his best-known memory paintings – works such as “Reminiscences of Youth” (Art Gallery of Ontario) and “Manitoba Party” (National Gallery of Canada). In such tableaus the artist weaves multiple memories into singular, composite pictures; never simply facsimiles of the private past, Kurelek’s best memory paintings make the viewer share in the dissonant sense of fixity and impermanence that constitute memory’s universal weight. Indeed, this uncanny ability is precisely what draws audiences to Kurelek’s art, and earned him important commissions like “Brothers”.

“Brothers” shows the artist’s mastery at rendering the sublime but understated Prairie landscape in winter – an environment Kurelek’s patron, who had likewise grown up in Western Canada before becoming an active member of the Ukrainian community in Toronto, knew just as well as the artist. The bright, killing cold is manifest by the hoar frost that clings to the short scruffy pockets of poplar and bush that punctuate the atmospheric and geometric monotony of the flat landscape and elevated horizon. The figures’ warm, vertical forms introduce a disorienting and ambiguous sense of scale and distance. The painting’s space appears at once shallow and infinitely regressive. There is a fantastical, gravitational levity to the scene, as though Kurelek has turned the whole world upside down, leaving the inhabitants floating on clouds.

Kurelek was professionally active in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when artists’ creative expression was routinely set apart from the utilitarian labour and objects of everyday life. Unlike most within his peer group, Kurelek was just as apt to refer to himself as a “picture maker” as he was a “painter” or “creator.”

Kurelek often used agrarian life and labour, and particularly the collaborative efforts of men, to explore themes of perseverance, generational continuity, as well as moments of kinship, patience, and love – or absence thereof. The relationships between community and family members – between boyhood friends, brothers, sons and fathers – cast a complicated and ambiguous shadow across the artist’s oeuvre. As a child, Kurelek craved paternal attention from a father for whom life was about, in the words of the Ukrainian-Canadian historian Orest Martynowych, “the brutal and relentless struggle for survival.” As a Roman Catholic convert, Kurelek took seriously the biblical injunction to love and obey his parents. He felt a deep attachment to his younger brother John, to whom he dedicated an entire series of paintings in 1973. And yet, Kurelek writes in his autobiography Someone With Me that he and his brother, while “constant companions” in their youth, were “rivals at the same time.” The artist continues,

“I was early seen to be different – a dreamer – while John was practical and naturally brighter. I was jealous of the affection and praise he seemed to get from my parents that I, being older, thought I had first claim to. Appropriately, my first memory of John is of him hitting me over the head with a vanilla bottle.”

As a youth, Kurelek deeply resented the effortless physical prowess and mechanical aptitude that earned John his father’s praise, and set his own shortcomings in stark relief. “Brothers” is no doubt a memento of the patron’s fraternal companionship. As a strong example of Kurelek’s memory painting, it is also a meditation on the fundamental impermanence of memory, and an allegory about the role others play in helping form personal identity.

We extend our thanks to Andrew Kear, Canadian art historian and Head of Collections, Exhibitions and Programs at Museum London for contributing the preceding essay. Andrew is the past Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a Curator of the 2011/2012 national travelling exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger and author of the Art Canada’s Institute’s “William Kurelek: Life & Work”, available at

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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