The Maze


The Maze (Canada, 1953)

Not for Sale Not for Sale
Gouache on board


91.00cm high
121.00cm wide
(35.83 inches high)
(47.64 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

In 1952 the twenty-five-year-old William Kurelek was found wandering round the Maudsley Hospital in search of someone to admit him. He had come from Canada to seek psychiatric help. He was lucky to find there doctors who took his desire to become an artist as seriously as his mental state, and was provided not only with treatment, but a room in which to paint. In return he painted The Maze. I had to impress the hospital staff, he wrote, as being a worthwhile specimen to keep on… Kurelek was born at his father’s farm in Alberta, Canada, into a Ukrainian immigrant community. A sensitive and artistic child, he was unsuited to the tough life of pioneer prairie farming, and grew up in terror of his father. He later attributed many of his psychological problems to this relationship, and to the bullying which he suffered at school, all of which he recorded in his autobiographical The Maze. The painting represents the artist lying on barren ground near a wheat field, with his head split open vertically to show the ‘psychic problems’ within. The viewpoint is from above the head: his hands and feet can be seen through the eye sockets, nose, and mouth. Inside the skull is an exitless maze containing scenes from his past and present life. At the centre lies a white laboratory rat, curled up in frustration at having tried so long to escape out of this maze of unhappy thoughts. The scene directly below the rat is a Maudsley case conference, in which identifiable doctors of the day probe the unhappy subject, trapped in a test tube. [This is the artist’s own interpretation of the painting] The subject, seen as a whole, is of a man (representing me) lying on a barren plain before a wheatfield, with his head split open. The point of view is from the top of his head. The subject is then roughly divided into the left hand side of the picture, [with] the thoughts made in his head represented as a maze; and the right hand side, the view of the rest of his body. The hands and feet are seen through the eyes, nose and mouth, tapering off into the distance and the outside world. THE MAZE [left-hand side of painting] An exitless one, it occupies and divides the inside of the cranium into groups of thoughts, the passageways being calculated to do the grouping. The white rat curled up in the central cavity represents my Spirit (I suppose). He is curled up with frustration from having run the passages so long without hope of escaping out of this maze of unhappy thoughts. They [the groups of thoughts] proceed as follows:- Group I [top and top right] Home upbringing: a) I, as a small boy, rejected by my school mates; b) my fear of school bullies and the ridicule of the school girls; c) my fear of being rejected by my father and losing the companionship, food, shelter and warmth of a home; d) my father's philosophy, the survival of the craftiest, pointed out by the plight of the foolish fish. Group II [top left] Political: a) my one time attachment to Ukrainian nationalism, which is a cry of anguish at the Ukraine being raped by Russia; b) my subsequent association with members of the Peace Movement, a Communist front organisation; c) the end result of over-zealous political leaning, WAR (my physical fear of it). Group III [middle left] Sexual: a) the merry-go-round string of rag dolls and wallflowers represent my lack of feeling and direction for dancing; b) the bull, dragging along his impediment and galloping towards the cow in heat, represents my fear of the animal side of sex in me. Group IV [bottom left] My social relations: choice between a) the hospital, with its ordeal of the panel (I in the test tube), interpreted in turn in two ways: 1) [below] as a benevolent conspiracy, or 2) [above] as a malevolent persecution: or b) the outside world - I continuing to be the outcast, skirting the smooth level highway of life in the ditch behind the hedge, sensitive to being seen in the light. Group V [middle and bottom right] Life and death: a) [middle right] Museum of Hopelessness being life and b) [below] the conveyor belt bearing the victim (me) inexorably to be crushed by the roller Death, I being one third there by the clock; c) [bottom right] the last picture is of me trying to convince myself that I am really mortal, using second hand information (the drawing) rather than examining the skeleton or coffin. OUTSIDE WORLD [right-hand side of painting] Grasshoppers and drought (sun before the clouds) represent the mercilessness of Nature, which bankrupted my father, a farmer, and brought out of him the cornered beast. The thorny, stony ground is a kind of T.S. Eliot Wasteland – spiritual and cultural barrenness: the pile of excrement with flies on it represents my view of the world and the people that live on it. The loosened red ribbon [linking the 2 halves of the skull] bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was untied by psychotherapy (Dr Cormier), but since the outside world is still unappealing, the rat remains inert. Before the head was opened, burrs (bitter experiences) choked the throat and pricked the sensitive underside of the tongue, and when it was opened the sawdust and shavings (tasteless education) spilled out from on top the tongue: mixed with the sawdust are symbols of (to me) equally tasteless Art, painting, literature and music. The burrs also represent, in the eye socket, the successive evaluations of my character by any friend during the process of acquaintance, all repellent but hopeful till the last, when the heart is discovered to be a grub. On the tongue and in the throat, the Kurelek family (big burrs produce little burrs), representing my father as the hard domineering blue burr opening up the mushy yellow burr, my mother, to release a common lot of burrs, my brothers and sisters, and one unique orange one – myself. The last burr, spearing culture, is I at the university. The inverted one is I as a child, trapped painfully between two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.