Most Ukrainian Canadians are undoubtedly aware of the artistic legacy of William Kurelek, arguably the most famous artist of Ukrainian descent that Canada has ever produced. His unique, distinctive, simplistic style, his masterful interweaving of ethnic, religious and psychological themes, the evident passion that imbues most of his works – all have served to make him recognized as an artistic giant of his time. Regrettably, his artistic career was relatively short, as he died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 50. Nonetheless, over the course of the two or three decades during which he painted, he managed to produce thousands of works in various forms. His creations now routinely fetch hundred of thousands of dollars when they go on sale.
Kurelek was born in 1927 to an immigrant family in Whitford, Alberta, a little community northeast of Edmonton. His mother had come to Canada in the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants prior to World War I, while his father arrived in 1923. William was the eldest of seven children and had a particularly difficult childhood, exacerbated by the tribulations the family faced during the economic depression of the thirties. He had a troubled relationship with his parents, particularly his father who was scornful of William’s artistic aspirations. This may have contributed to Kurelek’s lifelong struggles with depression and mental illness.
Nonetheless Kurelek was determined to be an artist, and he relentlessly pursued his studies at the University of Manitoba, the Ontario College of Art and the School of Fine Arts in San Miguel, Mexico. As he evolved what was to become his unique style, he was also concurrently struggling with depression and other serious psychological and spiritual conflicts. This eventually culminated in the mid 1950’s with Kurelek shedding the atheistic influences inherited from his father and becoming a dedicated Catholic. From that point on, his ardent Christianity became a driving force not only in his personal life but also in his artistic expression.
During the 1960s and 70s, Kurelek increasingly became better known not only in Canada but abroad. Since his untimely death, his reputation has continued to grow and he has become accepted into the pantheon of Canada’s greatest artists. In this country, some 36 books have been written about Kurelek and his works. His well-known illustrated children’s books, “A Prairie Boy’s Summer” and “A Prairie Boy’s Winter” have been translated into 18 different languages world-wide. His masterpiece series of 160 paintings depicting “The Passion of Christ” from the gospel of St. Matthew, earned him international kudos, especially from the Vatican, and a personal letter of praise from Pope Paul VI in 1975. He is renowned throughout Europe and most of the western world.
Interestingly and ironically enough, one country where little if anything is known about him, is Ukraine. During Soviet times, the atheistic authorities there had little interest in publicizing the works of an artist who was a passionate Christian, an aspect that featured prominently in his works. Even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, there were too many other priorities for native Ukrainians to be concerned with than the artistic legacy of a diasporan Ukrainian artist.
That all changed in recent years because of a young art critic from Lviv by the name of Khrystyna Berehovska. When she was introduced to Kurelek’s art, she was instantly enchanted, particularly by his “The Passion of Christ” series. This instilled in her a strong passion to make Kurelek as well known in the land of his ancestors as he is in Canada and the rest of the world. That passion has been translated into an opus book titled “The Passion of Christ” which was recently launched, published by the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. It is the first book about Kurelek to be published in Ukraine. It is printed in four languages – Ukrainian, English, French and Spanish. Although the book focuses on “The Passion of Christ Series”, it also provides a comprehensive biography of Kurelek and an overview of his total artistic legacy.
Khrystyna is currently on a book launch tour in Canada, where I recently had the opportunity of meeting and talking with her. It is obvious that for Khrystyna, this is a true labour of love. As well as producing this book, she has given a series of presentations on Kurelek in Ukraine. There was one that held special meaning for her, as the audience was a group of some 300 soldiers from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Despite her initial trepidations, she discovered that her presentation had a deep resonance with these combat veterans. As they explained to her, this was one of the reasons they were fighting and risking their lives, to help preserve a priceless cultural heritage that now extends across the world. Even in the midst of brutal war, an appreciation for art is not out of place.