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Detail from an image painted by William Kurelek of him being filmed by directors Robert Young (the hooded figure) and David Grubin (with the mic) (The estate of William Kurelek)
Detail from an image painted by William Kurelek of him being filmed by directors Robert Young (the hooded figure) and David Grubin (with the mic) (The estate of William Kurelek)

film

Exploring the maze that was artist William Kurelek Add to ...

In 1969 the Canadian artist William Kurelek told the American filmmaker Robert M. Young: “First of all, I would like to state quite categorically that I don’t believe I was ever mental … I wasn’t mental.”

Today, it is that statement that opens William Kurelek’s The Maze, a remake of Young’s original documentary about the artist undertaken by the filmmaker’s sons, Nick and Zack Young. The remade film tells the story of Kurelek’s remarkable spiritual journey from a British psychiatric hospital to the Toronto art world. Meanwhile, the story behind the documentary, which will be screened at the Rendezvous with Madness film festival next month after a Toronto premiere Friday, is also remarkable, as a filmmaking family unearths an unseen treasure from its own vaults and restores it to view.

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The project began in the 1960s when Young, a documentarian who turned to feature filmmaking later in his career, was approached by James Maas, a psychologist at Cornell University, and asked to make an educational film based on the professor’s slide collection of “psychotic art.” That collection included The Maze, Kurelek’s dark depiction of his mental state and unhappy Prairie youth painted while he was a patient in a psychiatric ward in the 1950s. A skull containing compartments, it shows a lone crying child, a youth being kicked out into the snow by his father, a boy who has cut his arm back to the skeleton, and a lizard being set upon by crows. The painting is a shocking, bitter depiction of the artist’s pain and isolation in a style crowded with details rather reminiscent of the 16th-century fantastical Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

“My father decided if he made a film about the man who painted The Maze, James Maas would have a film that would show the relationship between art and psychology,” said Nick Young. With co-director David Grubin, his father made a half-hour film that Maas used in classes, but he was never fully satisfied with it. For example, he was forced to cut a section in which Kurelek’s father, a demanding Ukrainian immigrant who had little love to spare for a sensitive boy he considered a failure, describes his own great hardships as a Depression-era farmer.

Then, about five years ago, the family discovered a longer, unfinished version of the film in the vaults at DuArt, the U.S. film production lab established by Robert Young’s father in the 1920s. Aged 88 and still working, Young suggested that his sons, who are musicians in a Los Angeles band called A.i. and produce visual effects for film, might finish the work and add a new soundtrack.

“My father felt Kurelek had become an iconic figure in Canadian art and that it really deserved to be seen. He always had in the back of his mind that the longer version should be finished,” Nick Young said. The first thing he and his brother did was to contact a curator at the archives of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London and get a transparency of The Maze.

“I scanned it and looked at it on a computer for the first time,” Young said. “My heart just stopped. In the 16 mm footage my father had you can’t really see the painting. Kurelek has so many hidden details and hidden meanings. … I realized he was not only an iconic figure in Canadian art, and a man who had this transformation, this great story, he was also a genius.”

To present The Maze, and other Kurelek paintings in the film, the Young brothers eventually animated the imagery: For example, using a painting entitled Behold Man Without God, another depiction of the artist’s darkest mental states, the new filmmakers bring to life an orchestra of pigs conducted by a monkey, the kind of chattering crowd that seemed to haunt the solitary artist. On the soundtrack they include Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a piece of music Kurelek would listen to while he painted. Sarcastically, Kurelek has scrawled its triumphant lyrics in one corner of the work.

These cynical views of humankind and his own painful solitude reflect the Kurelek who was in hospital on and off between 1952 and 1955. He was suffering from a deep depression and was diagnosed as schizophrenic: The film recounts a story of his boyhood hallucination of a turkey in his bedroom, yet another occasion on which his singular visionary personality was dismissed by his father.

The paintings of those years in and out of hospital, during which he attempted suicide, “were a cry for help,” Nick Young said. “They weren’t for public viewing. They were to show the doctors what he was going through … to show, as he says in the film, that he was ‘a worthy specimen.’ ”

Kurelek was given electroshock and treated in an art therapy program, but it was really religion that saved his life. He converted to Catholicism in 1957 and began painting religious subjects, including a series depicting the Passion of Christ. He came to see his own mental suffering as somehow spiritually necessary.

“What fascinated my father was Kurelek did not believe he was ‘mental,’ ” Young said, adding that “Kurelek felt it was spiritual crisis he had to go through … I am not religious, my father is not religious, but whenever he sees the Passion section of the film, it always makes him cry.”

Kurelek returned to Canada, found work as a picture framer, and went on to become a highly successful artist, perhaps best known for his much happier visions of his Prairie youth, recalled in the picture books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. But the dark side of his personality remained, sometimes visible in didactic religious paintings, sometimes in the reappearance of psychological work that he re-purposed with a religious message: Behold ManWithout God was a title he added to that chaotic 1955 painting after his conversion. In the film, his wife Jean, who died in 2009 but who appears in an interview from the 1960s, speaks openly about his disappointment when he found out marriage was not always a perfect state, and her relief when he finally learned how to get angry rather than retreat into himself.

Kurelek died of cancer in 1977 at age 50, when his four children were still young, but the Youngs have shown them both the unfinished film they first found and the remade work.

“They were teenagers when he died. … Every year they would look at the film to remember their father. When we found the longer version, we were really excited to share that with them so they had more footage.” With the completion of the fuller version, the Youngs’ gift to the Kureleks is complete.

 

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