Manitoba Party by William Kurelek: Impressions of Rural Life in Canada
William Kurelek’s Manitoba Party presents a quintessential moment in the life of prairie Canadians: a Ukrainian celebration, usually brought about by a wedding or anniversary. The work was painted in 1964 in oil on masonite, the composition being carefully constructed with symmetry and precision, a characteristic of Kurelek’s style. There are two even lines of people entering from both left and right, pulling the viewer’s gaze towards the centre of the composition where they meet. Inside the tent, masts with lanterns which are evenly spaced and act as a central divide, while three long tables line the tent's perimeter. The scene is an example of the social gatherings that brought together the immigrant communities of the prairies. Kurelek’s parents were part of the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants who began arriving in Western Canada in the 1890s. Kurelek was born in 1927 on the family farm in Whitford, Alberta, and raised in Manitoba, and his depictions of prairie life relate to him on a personal level, as they recount stories of farmers, towns and everyday occurrences.
Manitoba Party was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1965, one year after it was included in Kurelek’s solo show, An Immigrant Farms in Canada at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. The artist explained that the work was based on parties held in the rural communities in Manitoba, in particular, those by the Kureleks' neighbours in Stonewall: "Every once in a while there would be a big party among the Ukrainians in the district. When Winnipeg friends and relatives and close friends of other ethnic origins were added, the farmhouse couldn't hold them all. … On the day of the wedding or whatever the occasion, people would begin arriving before noon, each family being greeted by special invitation music played by a country orchestra. All the tables were loaded with Ukranian and Canadian style foods …"
Kurelek’s paintings celebrating multicultural life in Canada, which he had begun painting in the 1960s, won him high praise throughout his career. Today, these works are held in public collections across the country and abroad, including several in the United Kingdom and the United States. Kurelek was included in the 1966 publication, Canadian Painting: A Century of Art Education, a defining event for him, according to art historian Marilyn Baker, that signaled his work as an artist had been accepted into the mainstream of Canadian art history. At the age of forty, he was featured in the Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, organized in 1967 to mark the centenary celebration of Canadian Confederation.
There is a rich history of Ukrainian immigration to Canada throughout the 20th century, with large waves occurring after the First and Second World Wars, when many people had been displaced from their homes after the formation of the Soviet Union and when refugees arrived from across war-torn Europe. Kurelek’s paintings also portray Polish immigrants and Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, as he felt they had similar experiences immigrating and adjusting to life in Canada. Works such as Manitoba Party form part of his paintings depicting distinctly Canadian scenes, highlighting Canada’s multicultural mosaic. In his statement about the works shown alongside Manitoba Party in 1964, Kurelek commented that "This was a story I felt was certainly worth telling. … as Canadians … we can look back with pride on our pioneering ancestors – those who broke the soil and developed the land. My father's part in it was rather typical and one which I knew from personal experience."
With the intention of becoming a teacher, Kurelek attended the University of Manitoba, receiving a BA in the Humanities in 1949. After graduation, he enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), but did not complete his studies, leaving in 1950. Later that year, he embarked on a hitchhiking trip to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, to take art classes possibly with either José Orozco or David Alfaro Sisqueiros and also, as he wrote in his 1973 autobiography, "in search of myself as an artist". As neither Mexican artist was still teaching at the school, Kurelek returned to Canada within five months in spring 1951. Soon after, he boarded a ship in Montreal bound for London, travelling across the Atlantic to seek psychiatric treatment for his anxiety and depression, as well as to develop as an artist.
Kurelek produced many paintings while a patient in psychiatric hospitals in the U.K. Kurelek explains in his autobiography that he had admitted himself for what he calls his troubles with “depersonalization." While benefiting from psychiatric treatment, he was also able to engage with art therapy, the innovative new technique used in Britain. He specifically sought out art therapy treatment at Maudsley and Netherne Hospitals in order to improve his mental health and to develop as an artist. Mary Jo Hughes discusses the significance of Kurelek travelling to England to seek treatment, noting that, by the early 1950s, the U.K. was a leader in the use of art therapy. Hughes suggests that Kurelek learnt of this technique from the psychology class he took at the University of Manitoba. Utilizing the production of art as a form of treatment for mental illness, art therapy in Britain was accepted as valid before it was recognized in Canada.
When Kurelek returned to Canada in 1959, after having apprenticed for two years as a master framer, he sought work at Isaacs Gallery in Toronto as a picture framer. Upon meeting to interview for the position, Isaacs became interested in Kurelek’s artistic abilities, as the frame he presented to demonstrate his framing skills included one of his own paintings. Isaacs subsequently hosted Kurelek’s first solo show in 1960. In the 2011 catalogue for the William Kurelek: The Messenger exhibition at the Art Gallery of Victoria, Isaacs recalled that Kurelek continued to represent Ukrainian-Canadian culture and attended the opening of his shows wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts.
In addition to the ethnic-conscious content of his paintings, hand-crafted frames like the embroidery-style version of Manitoba Party – made by the artist himself "using lumber weathered on my father's farm" – embodies another aspect of Kurelek’s style. They became an integral part of his paintings, extending further the ideas on the canvas. In Kurelek’s Reminiscences of Youth (1968), in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, an entire scene is painted onto the frame, pushing the boundaries of the picture plane beyond the canvas and creating an interaction between the two. On the frame, a young boy is depicted lying on his bed in his room, daydreaming about his childhood in the prairies. Kurelek's frames pushed the traditional notion of the picture plane being confined to the canvas, and the artist innovatively merged the picture painter with the picture framer.
Kurelek's career also extended to book illustration and writing, with works such as The Ukraniain Pioneer (1980) and The Polish Canadians (1981) illustrating children's books. He authored two children's books himself, A Prairie Boy’s Winter (1973) and A Prairie Boy’s Summer (1975), the latter receiving two awards from the New York Times. Celebrating Canada’s multicultural heritage, Kurelek was honoured by the Government of Canada through the purchase of The Ukrainian Pioneer series of six paintings to be displayed in the House of Commons, and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
William Kurelek's Manitoba Party is on view in A112 in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. For other works by this artist, see the Gallery's online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.