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Art and Images in Psychiatry
October 2004

The Maze

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(10):973. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.10.973

The inverted [burr] is I as a child, trapped painfullybetween two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.1(p4)

William Kurelek (1927-1977) was the son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canadaand was raised on rural farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Unsuited to farm work,he bore the brunt of his father’s frustration in the difficult yearsof the Great Depression and felt contempt from his father about his lack ofmanliness. These experiences affected him deeply and led him to withdraw intohimself.2

William Kurelek (1927-1977), Canadian. Cover: The Maze, 1953. Gouache on board; 91 cm × 121 cm.Courtesy of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum, Beckenham, England.Figure appearing in “Art and Images in Psychiatry” article: Out of the Maze, 1971. Mixed media on board; 94.5 cm ×125 cm. Courtesy of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum.

William Kurelek (1927-1977), Canadian. Cover: The Maze, 1953. Gouache on board; 91 cm × 121 cm.Courtesy of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum, Beckenham, England.Figure appearing in “Art and Images in Psychiatry” article: Out of the Maze, 1971. Mixed media on board; 94.5 cm ×125 cm. Courtesy of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum.

Chronically depressed, Kurelek went to London, England, in 1953 to pursuehis art education and to seek psychiatric treatment at the Maudsley Hospital.Frustrated by his slow progress in psychotherapy, he completed an autobiographicalpainting, The Maze, to draw attention to his sufferingand to show his physicians that he was an interesting specimen.3 Likeningit toT. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men (“Paralyzedforce, gesture without motion”4(p60)), he drew “a kind of pictorial package of all my emotionalproblems in a single painting. . . . It was my firm beliefthat my problems stemmed from my father’s farm failures, his habit oftaking out his frustrations on me. . . . My helpless dependenceon the doctors was represented symbolically by a white rat knotted up in themiddle of the maze.”2(p89) Severalpsychiatrists, among them G. Morris Carstairs, MD, and Sir Aubrey Lewis, areshown observing him in a test tube.2(p90) An adjacent panel shows Kurelek with a knife in his right hand lookingat a skeletal left arm cut to the bone; this may relate to the self-cuttingepisode, provoked by a sense of unreality and his desire to feel that he wasa real human being with a real skeleton and made of flesh and bones, thatresulted in his hospital admission.

The Maze depicts Kurelek’s desperation.A man’s skull is shown in cross section, split open and lying on a barrenplain facing a wheat field. The “thoughts made in his head”1(p1) are compartmentalized in scenes fromhis past and his present life in a maze with no exit. Five groups of unhappythoughts are shown: childhood rejection, fear of war, fear of sexual urges,social anxiety, and the museum of hopelessness. The rest of his body is shownon the right. The hands and feet are viewed through the eye sockets, nose,and mouth, tapering off into the distance and the outside world. This worldis represented by an ominous yellow sky with a horde of locusts hovering overthe wheat, apparently representing insect plagues that tormented the Kurelekfamily in the 1930s.

Diagnosed as having personality disorder2(p92) and depression, Kurelek was discharged following treatment andreturned to Canada, where he became a widely renowned artist. He attributedhis recovery primarily to his religious conversion to Catholicism while inEngland. Nearly 20 years later, he painted Out of the Maze (Figure). The split skull from The Maze, its compartments now empty, lies discarded ina luxuriant green meadow. Kurelek and his wife and children, their hands drawntogether in prayer, enjoy a picnic. Although all seems calm, storm cloudsarise to the right. Kurelek had apocalyptic fears at this time in his lifeand was preoccupied with a nuclear holocaust2,5;he shared these concerns with his former psychiatrist, Dr Carstairs, thena professor of psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Carstairshad called for a contemporary artist, like Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) hadbeen in his time, “who can turn his innocent eye upon the nightmarerealities of this era with its threat of nuclear annihilation.”3(p175) Kurelek sought that role in his life2 and in works such as Nuclear AgeMadonna (1971).6

Kurelek, Out of theMaze, 1971.

Kurelek, Out of theMaze, 1971.

Influenced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) and Bosch, Kurelekpainted innocent scenes of children at play and religious themes; by the timeof his death, he was one of the most successful Canadian artists of his generation.His paintings of immigrant communities and illustrated books for childrenhave become Canadian classics.


William Kurelek’s Description of The Maze

The Maze depicts Kurelek’s spirit, 5groups of unhappy thoughts, and the outside world: “Spirit: The whiterat curled up in the central cavity represents my spirit (I suppose). He iscurled up with frustration from having run the passages so long without hopeof escaping this maze of unhappy thoughts. They proceed as follows: 1. Home Upbringing (top and top right): I, as a small boy,rejected by my school mates; my fear of school bullies and the ridicule ofschool girls; fear of being rejected by my father and losing the companionship,food, shelter, and warmth of a home; my father’s philosophy, the survivalof the craftiest, pointed out by the plight of the foolish fish. 2. Political (top left): My one time attachment to Ukraniannationalism . . . the Ukraine being raped by Russia;my subsequent association with members of the Peace Movement, a Communistfront organization; the end result of over-zealous political leaning, WAR(my physical fear of it). 3.Sexual (middle left):The merry-go-round of rag dolls and wallflowers represent my lack of feelingand direction for dancing; the bull, dragging along his impediment and gallopingtowards the cow in heat, represents my fear of the animal side of sex in me.4. My Social Relations (bottom left): Choice betweenthe hospital, with its ordeal of the panel (I in the test tube), interpretedin two ways, as a benevolent conspiracy, or as a malevolent persecution: orthe outside world—I continuing to be the outcast, skirting the smoothlevel highway of life in the ditch behind the hedge, sensitive to being seenin the light. 5. Life and Death (middle and bottomright): (A) Museum of Hopelessness being life [painting of a mushroom cloud]and (B) the conveyer belt bearing the victim (me) inexorably to be crushedby the roller Death, I being one third there by the clock and (C) the lastpicture of me trying to convince myself that I am really mortal, using thesecondhand information (the drawing) rather than examining the skeleton orcoffin. Outside World (right-hand side of painting):  . . . spiritualand cultural barrenness. . . . The loosened redribbon [linking the 2 halves of the skull] bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was untied by psychotherapy . . . butsince the outside world is still unappealing, the rat remains inert. Beforethe head was opened, burrs (bitter experiences) choked the throat and prickedthe sensitive underside of the tongue, and when it was opened the sawdustshavings (tasteless education) spilled out from the top of the tongue: mixedwith the sawdust are symbols of (to me) equally tasteless Art, painting, literature,and music. The burrs also represent, in the eye socket, the successive evaluationsof my character by any friend during the process of acquaintance, all repellentbut hopeful till the last, when the heart is discovered to be a grub. On thetongue and in the throat, the Kurelek family (big burrs produce little burrs),representing my father as the hard domineering blue burr opening up the mushyyellow burr, my mother, to release a common lot of burrs, my brothers andsisters, and one unique orange one—myself. The last burr, spearing culture,is I at the University. The inverted one is I as a child, trapped painfullybetween two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.”

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Morley  P Kurelek, a Biography.  Toronto, Ontario Macmillan of Canada1986;
Kurelek  W Someone With Me: The Autobiography of William Kurelek.  Niagara Falls, Ontario Niagara Falls Art Gallery, Kurelek Collection1988;
Eliot  TS The Waste Land and Other Poems.  New York, NY Penguin Putnam, Inc1998;
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Friesen  I Earth, Hell and Heaven in the Art of William Kurelek.  Oakville, Ontario Mosaic Press1996;