Artwork by William Kurelek,  Behold Man Without God (#3)

William Kurelek
Behold Man Without God (#3)

mixed media on board
signed with monogram lower right; inscribed “XX” on the reverse; titled and dated 1972 on the reverse of the artist’s frame
38 x 24 ins ( 96.5 x 61 cms )

Auction Estimate: $80,000.00$60,000.00 - $80,000.00

Price Realized $78,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2021

Provenance:
Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection
All creatures drink of joy At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
- Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy” (1785)

An English translation of the lyrics to Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony, etched on a giant stone tablet, forms the centerpiece of William Kurelek’s “Behold Man Without God (#3)”. The text, a modified version of a poem by Friedrich Schiller, was penned during the Enlightenment as a triumphant celebration of shared human experience. The German poet’s paean sits in marked contrast to the devastation that pervades Kurelek’s painting. A dark portrait of human hypocrisy, with a title that nonetheless gestures toward religious redemption, “Behold Man Without God (#3)” signals a harrowing and transformative moment in the artist’s life.

William Kurelek was born into a Ukrainian immigrant family in a small settlement north-east of Edmonton, Alberta in 1927. His family soon moved to Stonewall, Manitoba, north of Winnipeg, where he spent his formative years. After graduating from the University of Manitoba, Kurelek briefly attended the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where his instructors included Carl Schaefer, Frederick Hagan, and Eric Freifeld. In 1950 he hitchhiked to Mexico, with the hope of studying with David Siqueiros at San Miguel de Allende. The Mexican master had left by the time the young artist arrived, but Kurelek’s creative drive and restlessness persisted. No sooner had he returned to Canada than he boarded a ship for England.

Over the ensuing decade, in England and on visits throughout Continental Europe, Kurelek saw work by, and fell under the influence of, modern visionaries like Stanley Spencer and Old Masters like Hieronymus Bosch. This was also a period of intense personal struggle for the young Canadian. Kurelek, who had suffered social anxiety and mental illness since he was a teenager, sought medical attention in London. Painting was prescribed as a form of therapy, and the artist manifested some of his most idiosyncratic and unflinchingly confessional work during this period—including, in 1955, the first version of “Behold Man Without God”. A committed atheist at the time, Kurelek titled the painting after he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957.

The top-half of “Behold Man Without God” is fantastical, its perspective broad and universal. Two armies—one birthed from a subterranean ant colony, the other from a giant hive—engage in ceaseless war. In the middle ground, a crowd—standing lively and upright on the left but laid low by burdensome sacks on the right—surrounds an orchestra of pigs, conducted by a monkey and ostensibly performing Beethoven’s symphony. Creativity and destruction co-exist; they just simply thrive and succumb like insects, alongside the unjust. The scene is Kurelek’s encapsulation of the state of nature, a world without divine authority.

The lower half of “Behold Man Without God” is equally devastating, but Kurelek drew from his own memory to compose the picture’s foreground. Several scenes include images of the artist’s father, Dmytro, who appears as a sadistic taskmaster. In one instance his tongue is a barbed lash. In another, the character brutishly stamps his boot into the back of a little boy before a tortuous merry-go-round of manacled children. Kurelek also makes multiple appearances himself. He wrestles the libidinal Freudian serpent, and plays a lone, pathetic actor in “The William Kurelek Theatre” at the picture plane’s centre-right. In the darkened foreground, Kurelek manifests as both an abandoned infant and an engorged rat carcass. The rat lies supine beneath a page torn from the second act of Hamlet, in which the main protagonist describes human beings as “this quintessence of dust.”

“Behold Man Without God” is an early and important expression of the foundational ideas that endure and recur throughout Kurelek’s ensuing oeuvre: hubris, cruelty, desire, and self-identity. Indeed, the artist produced at least four numbered versions of this image during his career, each varying slightly in size, treatment, media, and colour. The original, the watercolour completed in England, is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The fourth version, a more brilliantly coloured mixed media work from 1973, entered the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2012. To date, the provenance and whereabouts of the second version remains unknown. “Behold Man Without God (#3)” —painted a year before the Winnipeg version—has come to auction complete with the artist’s original, hand-built frame, via the first owner, a private collection in the United States.

That Kurelek painted multiple versions of the painting is not unprecedented. He sometimes fashioned new iterations of extant work for patrons, friends, and religious organizations. This practice not only served practical objectives but was consistent with the public image Kurelek projected, as a craftsman rather than a fine artist. It also underlines his valuation of the painted message, over the painting’s significance as a unique commodity. That said, when the artist replicated work, it tended to be the bucolic Prairie landscapes coveted by collectors. He rarely reprised scenes of devastation and violence, or paintings that emphasized his devout Roman Catholic worldview. In this regard, the “Behold Man Without God” series is remarkable.

Kurelek returned to Canada in 1959, resettling as a completely unknown artist in Toronto. Within a year, however, he had received his first solo exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery—which included the original version of “Behold Man Without God”—and began garnering the critical and popular attention that would sustain his career until his death in 1977. Today, “Behold Man Without God” stands as one of Kurelek’s most unflinchingly personal images. It captures a moment of reckoning, of internal conflict and profound soul-searching. But it is also a painting about a departure. “Behold Man Without God” is a broken “Ode to Joy” that announces the beginning of something new.

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 www.aci-iac.ca.

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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)