Artwork by William Kurelek,  Free Ukrainian Mountaineers
Thumbnail of Artwork by William Kurelek,  Free Ukrainian Mountaineers Thumbnail of Artwork by William Kurelek,  Free Ukrainian Mountaineers Thumbnail of Artwork by William Kurelek,  Free Ukrainian Mountaineers

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

Lot #18

William Kurelek
Free Ukrainian Mountaineers

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1968 lower right
40.25 x 42 in ( 102.2 x 106.7 cm )

Auction Estimate: $40,000.00$30,000.00 - $40,000.00

Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Mayberry Fine Art, Winnipeg
Private Collection, Ontario
"The Burning Barn: 16 Paintings by William Kurelek", Hart House Art Gallery, University of Toronto, 11-29 March 1969
William Kurelek, 'Development of Ethnic Consciousness in a Canadian Painter' in Wsevolod Isajiw, "Identities: The Impact of Ethnicity on Canadian Society", Toronto, 1976, page 47
William Kurelek, "The Burning Barn: 16 Paintings by William Kurelek", Toronto, 1969
A troupe of venturesome mountaineers at bottom right welcome us into a tranquil world with dance and music. They delight on a slope overlooking a busy bucolic village, nestled next to a meandering river within a verdant valley within what likely represents the mountains and forests of the Carpathian region in western Ukraine. The summer’s hazy cerulean sky vaults the earthly paradise.

Kurelek himself did not actually set foot in Ukraine until 1971, two years after he completed this painting. He was born in Canada in 1927, east of Edmonton, and raised on a farm north of Winnipeg. His parents, relatives, and many of their friends had either arrived on the Prairies from Ukraine over the previous three decades or were the second-generation offspring of immigrants. Seeking greater stability and opportunity, they formed a close-knit community that nurtured the language and customs of their homeland. Kurelek’s devotion to his family’s Ukrainian heritage was also forged in opposition, as a response to the alienation he felt early in life toward the broader Anglo-Canadian culture. And, as a teenager during the Second World War, this patriotism was nurtured by a charismatic priest at his family’s Orthodox church, who “taught us the history of the Ukraine, with its brief moments of glory.” Then, Kurelek “dreamed of doing great things for the cause of Ukrainian liberation,” idealizing “the Ukrainian countryside, people, and culture.”

Kurelek’s love for Ukraine and its people endured throughout his life. But what the artist describes as his “ethnic consciousness” became more nuanced following his conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1950s. In his mature art, devotion to “countryside, people, and culture” often shared centre stage with the lessons of his new faith. Indeed, "Free Ukrainian Mountaineers", one of two versions that exist, is part of what Kurelek described as his “second socio-religious comment series,” entitled "The Burning Barn". We witness more obvious social and religious commentary in paintings like "Our World Today" (Department of Foreign Affairs, Ottawa) and "Cross Section of Vinnitsia in the Ukraine", 1939 (Winnipeg Art Gallery), which hung alongside the other version of "Free Ukrainian Mountaineers" (Art Gallery of Hamilton) at the Hart House exhibition (University of Toronto) in March 1969.

"The Burning Barn", which Kurelek had originally—and curiously— intended to title “Health,” was, in fact, his third exhibition to make explicit reference to societal and religious themes. However, whereas an unremitting sense of gloom predominated his previous efforts— "Experiments in Didactic Art", 1963 and "Glory to Man in the Highest", 1966—The Burning Barn struck a balanced tone. Paintings exploring social injustice and global turmoil were matched with those, like "Free Ukrainian Mountaineers", expressing more positive themes of freedom, joy, and hope. The artist also “endeavoured to offset” criticism that his earlier pessimism did not match his Christian character “by painting most of the happy scenes larger than the unhappy ones.”

While seemingly pastoral and nostalgic, "Free Ukrainian Mountaineers" is also indelibly contemporary, a hopeful reminder amid the Cold War. Today, seeing this work in the context of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine should also remind us of the ways in which the atrocities of totalitarianism were being exposed, and increasingly resisted in that country by the end of the 1960s. Completed at a time when dissident activity was increasing in Eastern Bloc countries and broadening awareness to the true scope of Stalin’s legacy of terror in places like Ukraine, the painting is an exercise in defiant idealism. It offered a beacon of hope, in Kurelek’s mind, for “the new ‘global village’ situation in which man finds himself,” a means to help develop “a measure of new collective conscience about this plight of his less fortunate fellow man abroad.”

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 Institute’s "William Kurelek: Life & Work", available at
For additional images and/or details related to this artwork, please visit the digital catalogue:
Sale Date: May 30th 2024

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

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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 (