A Maze of bleakness, from Van Halen to Kurelek.

As a young teen music was a huge part of my life. I guess it always has been. As a child I would sit on the floor by the fireplace and listen to my father’s albums where I discovered Carlos Santana and The Beatles. As time went on I found my own bands to love. Bands that were “mine”. The band that grabbed my attention (and has held it for decades since) was Van Halen. I cut the neighbor’s yards for ten dollars each week in the summer, and this source of income allowed me to build up a collection of records and cassettes for myself.

I remember those days when information was not at our fingertips. I would ride my bicycle to the local record store and flip through the various albums to see if there were any I didn’t have yet. One day I found Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”, and realized it had come out a couple of years beforehand. The artwork struck me. My first impression was confusion. The cover was strange and, upon closer inspection, rather violent. The part that really gave me pause was the overall infusion of browns and dingy yellows in the artwork. Not at all like the glossy images on most rock albums. It reminded me vaguely of Hieronymous Bosch, whom an art teacher had exposed me to.

Fast forward to some years later, I learned that this album cover was a snippet from a larger painting. The Maze by Kurelek. The full work was even more disturbing than the detail.

William Kurelek (1927-1977) was a Canadian artist whose artwork seems to have reflected his somewhat hard life. Growing up on farms (the first of which his family would lose in the Great Depression) he first was educated in a small rural elementary school. He attended high school in Winnipeg, and already producing regular paintings moved to England in his twenties. Suffering from depression, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was treated for schizophrenia. This melancholy mental state seems to have hovered over him the rest of his life. This I am inferring solely by his artistic output. The bleakness of the Canadian winters seem to be the base line for how Kurelek viewed the wider world around him.

Kurelek found practical employment in a framing shop in London, where he learned the craft at a high level, fashioning frames for work to be displayed in museums. All this time he continued his artwork, and treatment for his mental state. Being an Atheist, at one point he converted to Roman Catholicism after discussing it at length with his therapist.

After returning to Canada, the painter found an agent and remained with him, and in his home country for the remainder of his life. His painting Hailstorm in Alberta was selected for display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

His life showed an adventurous spirit that seemed at odds with his somber outlook. In 1950 he hitchhiked from Canada to Mexico, and in 1969 took a trip around the world. He did marry, and stayed productive until the end. He succumbed to cancer in 1977.

I enjoy the paintings of Kurelek, as to me they recall the darkness of Bosch, and even Goya but through twentieth century lenses. As I went on to study art and history later in life, I often recall with slight amusement that my first exposure to this Canadian Master was not from academia, but from the cover of a Van Halen album.

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