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I fled Him, down the nights and down the days . . . Ifled Him, down the labyrinthine waysOf my own mind; and in the midstof tears . . . —FrancisThompson, 18901(p56)
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days . . .
Ifled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midstof tears . . .
On November 3, 1953, William Kurelek (1927-1977) was transferred tothe Netherne Hospital, Coulsdon, Surrey, England, for chronic care following17 months at the Maudsley Hospital, London, England. The referral letter suggestedthat there he might reach a “satisfactory equilibrium under shelteredcircumstances.”2(p92) Whileat Maudsley, he had completed the self-analytical painting The Maze,3 depicting himself as a whiterat who lay exhausted and demoralized in the center of an exitless maze, seeminglycondemned to eternally ruminate on painful events from his past life. Hisphysicians thought it would benefit him to work with Edmund Adamson, the founderof British art therapy, at Netherne. Kurelek had been grateful for daily talksat the Maudsley with a devout Roman Catholic occupational therapist, MargaretSmith, and she agreed to visit him. The Netherne Hospital was, to Kurelek,a dreary asylum. By the time Adamson met him, he had regressed and could notparticipate in an art group so was allowed to paint alone in a small room.He communicated without words by giving Adamson copies of his drawings andpaintings.4(p23)
William Kurelek (1927-1977), Canadian. Cover: All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Me (Nature Poor StepdameSeries), 1970. Mixed media on board; 48 in × 48 in. The IsaacsGallery, Toronto, Ontario. Painting reproduced courtesy of The Estate of William Kurelek andThe Isaacs Gallery.
On his third day at Netherne, he awoke after midnight and saw the moonshining brightly on a cabbage field and the distant pine forest behind it.It was a peaceful scene, yet he experienced “a sense of complete andutter abandonment.”5(p154) Inhis desolation, he recalled Smith’s religious devotion and began topray for the first time since he was 11 years old. The painting All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Me (cover) shows this pivotalmoment in his religion conversion. Sitting on a hospital bed looking out thewindow, he sees the cabbages glowing beneath an illuminated sky. Behind them,a small hound stares out at him. Kurelek freezes as he feels its penetratinggaze. The glass of water on the windowsill, beyond his reach, represents the“living water”5(p154) offaith. This is “The Hound of Heaven” from Francis Thompson’s(1859-1907) poem. In the poem, a divine lover in the form of a heavenly houndrelentlessly pursues a mortal fugitive from God’s redemptive love. Thedivine presence addresses the soul of the pursued man with these words: “Allthings betray thee who betrayest me.”1(p56)
At Netherne, he depicted his predicament in his painting Where Am I? Who Am I? Why Am I? (1953). It shows a disoriented blindman, utterly alone, with sunken eye sockets. In this state of mind, on August11, 1954, Kurelek attempted suicide by self-poisoning and self-cutting. Afterwardhe was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), responded, and describedrelief from his long-standing and crushing load of depression.6(p350) Following ECT, he completed a rejoinder to the earlier paintingshowing his disorientation, titled Lord That I May See (1955)(Figure). A groping blind man with emptyeye sockets kneels at the foot of a grassy hill. A path leads up to a tree,and a skylark soars above. Two figures, the artist and Smith, his spiritualguide, hurry up the hill. A shadow (Kurelek says of Christ) falls on the pathin front of the kneeling figure, who looks up in humble petition.2(p106) Kurelek continued to improve afterthis and was discharged January 28, 1955, formally converted to Catholicismin 1957, and moved to Canada in 1959. He saw himself as a neomedieval painterwith a religious message, carrying on the traditions of Hieronymus Bosch andPieter Bruegel the Elder.
Kurelek, Lord ThatI May See, 1955. Watercolor; 48 in × 30 in. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal,Quebec. Painting reproduced courtesy of The Estate of William Kurelek andThe Isaacs Gallery.
Kurelek’s art struck a chord with Canadian consciousness. He becameknown as the people’s painter, capturing the lives of the Ukrainian,Polish, Jewish, and Irish immigrants who settled in multiethnic Canada. Tohis biographer he remains an enigma.2 To theart critic, he could be taken seriously as an outsider artist7;outsider artists are typically self-absorbed, oblivious to convention, andpreoccupied with detail. He worked at a frenzied pace, producing a tremendousbody of work ranging from criticism of abortion to his famous series, Passion of Christ. His mission in his last years was topaint sermons that would save a world plagued by secular humanism,2 but he is most remembered for his depictions of thesimple joys of prairie life.
Harris JC. All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Me. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(11):1082. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.11.1082
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