ARCA OC OSA
1927 - 1977
Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood
mixed media on board
signed, titled and dated 1960 and on verso titled and dated on the gallery label
30 x 40 in 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000
Sold for: $61,250
Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave
The Isaacs Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Acquired from the above by a Private Collection, Florida, May 1962
By descent to the present Private Collection, Toronto
As his subject suggests, William Kurelek painted Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood in Canada, but only just. This 1960 work strongly relates to an earlier body of work the artist produced while living abroad between 1952 and 1959. The compartmentalized, illustratively styled trompe l’oeil—a mixed media painting of pictures affixed to a shallow plane of red faux clapboard siding—displays the telltale signs of Kurelek’s English period. At the same time, the painting’s rural prairie setting, the ambivalent story it tells about childhood, and the prioritization of memory and remembering also announce the through line that would carry and define his subsequent career, which ended with his premature death in 1977.
Kurelek painted Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood in a rooming house on Toronto’s Huron Street. Having returned to Canada from England in the spring of 1959, he initially pursued teacher training, but was ultimately deemed psychologically unfit for the profession. Kurelek’s battle with mental illness was lifelong, but his circumstances were particularly dire throughout the 1950s, when he spent several years in and out of two psychiatric hospitals, attempted suicide, and received electroconvulsive therapy treatment. Kurelek’s condition had stabilized by 1957, the year he converted to Roman Catholicism. In England he had also trained and worked at one of London’s top framing workshops, F.A. Pollocks, where he developed the skill set that ultimately helped sustain him though his first decade as an artist in Toronto.
In early 1960, Kurelek found work as a framer at the important Isaacs Gallery. The focus on hand-wrought craftsmanship suited him—not only as a meaningful creative outlet, but also as an affirmation of the respect for manual work he had gained while growing up on a farm north of Winnipeg in the 1930s. Significantly, however, when the gallery’s purveyor, Avrom Isaacs, hired Kurelek, it was not merely for his experience as a framer. Isaacs was also impressed with his paintings, and soon offered the virtually unknown artist a solo exhibition, which proved a popular success. The exhibition comprised 19 works that Kurelek had, for the most part, executed in England. Several works from that exhibition are now in major public collections, including Lord That I May See (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), Behold Man Without God (Art Gallery of Ontario) and Zaporozhian Cossacks (Winnipeg Art Gallery).
Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood was likely completed later in 1960, following Kurelek’s Canadian debut. It is an accomplished and quintessential work from this period that, as with many appearing at his first Isaacs Gallery exhibition, reveals deep appreciation for the Flemish Renaissance art he had encountered first-hand in England and on the European continent. Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood shows the early deployment of a leitmotif Kurelek would reprise throughout his life, one that pays clear homage to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560), which the Canadian saw at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1952.
Following Bruegel, the vision of childhood appearing in Memories of a Manitoba Boyhood contains moments of humour, insight and life-affirming ebullience. Honest work, good fun and moments of tenderness are all on display. But the painting does not incorporate the anodyne sentimentalism often associated with popular modern depictions of childhood. Kurelek’s vignettes share Bruegel’s shocking vacillation between, as Mary Jo Hughes notes, a “dichotomy of innocence and cruelty.” The work includes ten separate scenes depicting mostly boys enacting various seasonal activities: farm work in the spring, a pillow fight in the summer, chasing birds in the fall and Christmas festivities, among others. There are also scenes of sadistic taunting, bullying and brutal violence—one boy appears in mid-collapse from being impaled by a tossed makeshift spear. An artist who believed that paintings should offer an honest window onto human nature, Kurelek’s portrayal of boyhood antics offers a microcosm of the contradictory inequalities manifest in the adult world.
We thank Andrew Kear, head of collections, exhibitions and programs at Museum London and co-curator of the traveling 2011 – 2012 exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger, for contributing the above essay. Kear recently authored the Art Canada Institute publication William Kurelek: Life & Work.
1. Mary Jo Hughes, “The William Kurelek Theatre Presents William Kurelek: An Epic Tragedy,” in Tobi Bruce et al., William Kurelek: The Messenger (Victoria, BC: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2011), exhibition catalogue, 47.
This work is in the original frame made by Kurelek.
Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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