Culture | Kurelek’s Canadiana

Looking back to a Manitoban master for a vision of national identity

Anything I could ever hope to say about Canada, my native and newly beloved country, is expressed a thousand times better by William Kurelek’s paintings. I don’t know of any Canadian painter who has created as intelligent and nuanced a vision of that subtlest of notions – a Canadian national identity.

I discovered this odd prairie sage, fatefully, when the perennial anxiety about what makes our country worthwhile pressed the hardest: in the early afternoon before the Olympic gold medal hockey game. I was in the Art Gallery of Ontario, wandering around nervously in the Canadian painting section on the second floor, looking to Tom Thompson and Lawren Harris for moral support. I knew about Kurelek from some visits to the gallery the previous summer, and found him charming, if nothing else. His expressively childlike images of rural life reminded me of the illustrations in The Hockey Sweater, the children’s book by Roch Carrier featured on our $5 bill.

This time I walked into the room devoted to Kurelek, which holds 20 or so of his works, and found a number of his pieces electrifying. The first thing that strikes you about a Kurelek is the colours – the blues verge on turquoise, the oranges are like clementine skins, the pinks are lipstick.

The lines, too, are simple and vivid. There is the odd flourish – some scratching with the handle of the paintbrush or a pencil, some mushy shading – but his figures reveal how little formal training Kurelek had.

Brought up during the Depression by Ukrainian immigrant farmers in Alberta and Manitoba, the young artist often bristled at the gruelling work his father demanded of him. When Kurelek told his parents he wanted to paint for a living, they were furious. He studied art briefly in Toronto and San Miguel, Mexico, in spite of their anger. At the age of 25 he went to London and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for depression, a stay which led him to convert to Catholicism and paint series of works devoted to Christ’s Passion and the virgin birth.

I think one picture from Kurelek’s book on European immigrants to Canada, They Sought a New World, is as emblematic of his vision of Canada as any other. It depicts a small settlement in northern Quebec, comfortably civilized with a horse and buggy, smoking chimneys, and a dirt road. A large family, or maybe the whole village, is sitting down for Sunday lunch – a priest presides at the end of the table. Surrounding the vision of pacified domesticity remains a sea of trees, darkly extending again to the edges of the picture, making an island of the otherwise cheerful settlement.

This is Kurelek’s thesis, condensed with a magical sense of narrative and drama into a couple of small paintings: in Canada, nature was never conquered. There was, and remains, a negotiated peace.

Kurelek was also fascinated by the emptiness of the prairies and the hardness of the Canadian winter.

The prairie paintings almost always have much more prairie in them than they have people. Thunder Driven is among these. A wide black sky stretches over the empty wheat field below, both of which are painted with what, for Kurelek, is a manic, expressionistic hand. The picture is cracked in half by a shock of lightning, lemon yellow. The light and sound have scared a horse, which is being pursued by a farmer. Two other farmers continue their work in the foreground, undisturbed. They are grudgingly going about their tasks despite the storm, as all Canadians do in Kurelek’s world. In their diffidence, the farmers embody the quiet coexistence with nature that the Canadian wild forces on those who live among it.

Winter heaps the elements on this arctic country with an unnerving ferocity. It dares anyone who braves it to fold. Kurelek points out, in painting after painting, that rather than capitulate, Canadians have adapted to winter in ways that define our national character. Many of the pieces from his book A Prairie Boy’s Winter express this battle against the odds – why labour on through the blizzard with your bucket of seed or your sled full of firewood? Why try and make a life in such impossible conditions? Canada is not a piece of land that easily yields to human machinations. But the central reality of post-pioneer Canadian life, as Kurelek sees it, is the determination to farm and build and play regardless of nature’s hardness.

To see how this uneasy truce between humanity and nature has shaped the Canadian character, you only have to train your eyes south to the American pioneer experience. The idea behind the American push west was then to master nature, to dominate the continent – sometimes including Canada – and make it submit to the will of man. This fantasy was in fact state policy, beginning at the latest in 1823 with James Monroe’s declaration of American protectorship over the entire Western hemisphere. The historian Fredrick Jackson Turner famously declared that the West was won, and the frontier closed, in a speech delivered in 1893: not only did Americans think they should try to conquer the West, they claimed to have actually succeeded more than 100 years ago. The arrogant, swaggering, triumphalist strain in the American national character can plausibly be traced to this very attitude toward the land they inhabit.

The idea that Canadians could ever declare our frontier closed is completely absurd. The North looms heavy in the Canadian imagination, a frozen bulwark against dreams of Canadian hubris. The arctic is not Oregon, or California; we would have a much harder time getting that distinctly Canadian frontier to submit to the human will. Nuclear weapons might do the trick, or global warming. Wagon trains fall short.

A distinctly Canadian character now emerges more easily. We are humble people, by and large, never having had an overwhelming, historic victory over nature such as America has always claimed. The vastness of the prairies, and the density of the forests, and the length of the winters have kept our pride sensibly in check.

If Canadians are more communitarian than Americans, and I think we are, it is not because Canadians were forced into sympathy with one another by the wilderness. There is plenty of me-time available to the prairie farm hands in Kurelek’s work. And the tight family unit facing the wild in solidarity is as much a trope of the American frontier as Clint Eastwood’s roaming, lonesome cowboy. But Canadians’ heightened awareness of our surroundings, and our greater humility, make us more malleable to a communal will and the common good. The overweening pride of an ultimate victory is notably absent from our fibre.

Skating, as depicted in Kurelek’s painting, is the perfect Canadian activity. It’s November; the world begins to freeze. The Canadian solution is to adapt. Strap on a couple of blades to your feet and make do. Eventually skating became an incredibly refined athletic, sometimes balletic, activity. It became a cornerstone of Canadian culture. The cover of May Ebbitt Cutler’s short biography of Kurelek, Breaking Free, is a painting by the artist himself. It shows four boys skating along a frozen river that stretches to the horizon. The vast fields flanking the river are covered in snow. Two boys have sped on ahead, but in the middle ground a boy in a green jacket has fallen hard. His feet are clean above his head; his hat has lifted off his head. In the foreground, behind the scene of the wipeout, another boy with yellow socks and mittens is skating gracefully to his friend’s aid.