LOT 021

1927 - 1977

Cutting the Ice
mixed media on board
initialed and dated 1974
48 x 34 in, 121.9 x 86.4 cm

Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000 CAD

Sold for: $79,250

Preview at:

Private Collection, Toronto

By the mid-1970s, William Kurelek was enjoying the height of popular success. Between 1973 and 1976 he published 11 books, including A Prairie Boy’s Winter, named one of the outstanding books of the year by the New York Times in 1973. Through series of paintings like The Ukrainian Pioneer Women in Canada (1967), The Happy Canadian (1974), The Irish in Canada and Jewish Life in Canada (both in 1976), Kurelek had become an emblematic representative of Canadian multiculturalism in the post-Centennial era.

Represented by the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto, one of the most respected commercial venues for contemporary art in the country, Kurelek also continued to enjoy cult status among critics and artistic peers. Contemporaries like Dennis Burton and Ivan Eyre, while not necessarily agreeing with Kurelek’s didacticism or Roman Catholic world view, found his strange and unapologetically personal approach refreshing. Cutting the Ice embodies both sides of Kurelek. This is a nostalgic image, illustrating the anachronistic practice of sourcing ice from a frozen body of water, and the cross-shaped slab overlays the everyday with something miraculous.

Born in 1927 at Whitford, Alberta, east of Edmonton, Kurelek grew up in a family that had been profoundly shaped by struggle and hardship. His mother’s kin, the Huculaks, had arrived in Western Canada in 1899 from the Ukrainian village of Borivtsi, seeking greater stability and opportunity. Their arrival coincided with the first significant wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. Kurelek’s father was born in the same town as the family of his future wife. He fled to Canada in 1923, following the devastation wrought by the First World War. In 1934, the Kureleks relocated to a dairy farm north of Winnipeg. The recollection of his formative years in Alberta and Manitoba represents one of the most persistent themes in Kurelek’s professional career, which stretched from the early 1950s to his premature death in 1977. Memory lies at the heart of some of his most iconic paintings, including, for example, Hailstorm in Alberta (collection of the Museum of Modern Art), Reminiscences of Youth (collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario), Manitoba Party (collection of the National Gallery of Canada), as well as his series A Prairie Boy’s Winter (various collections) and A Prairie Boy’s Summer (collection of Art Windsor-Essex).

Cutting the Ice was painted in 1974, between his undertaking of the books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. In these publications, intended for children, Kurelek stitches together words and pictures into a nostalgic autobiographical narrative recounting seasonal anecdotes from his youth growing up in rural Manitoba during the Depression. Although completed well after the release of A Prairie Boy’s Winter by Tundra Books, this painting’s subject and treatment is contiguous with the series.

Here, a group has gathered on a frozen river with their dogs and tools, to cut and haul ice. The low banks and stubby trunks of denuded deciduous trees help to place the scene within the Interlake Region, north of Winnipeg and south of Lake Winnipeg, where Kurelek grew up. Harvesting river ice was a common task in an era before indoor plumbing and mass refrigeration. In Kurelek’s painting, however, instead of the manageable blocks into which the river ice would normally be cut for transport, the labourers work to extract a single crucifix. This element distinguishes Cutting the Ice from anything found in the Prairie Boy’s Winter works, which, intended to appeal to a broad audience, lack the artist’s telltale religious iconography.

The presence of the crucifix within an otherwise quotidian scene performs a couple of functions for the artist. First, just as the sixteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel famously inserted biblical and miraculous moments into his scenes of contemporary life, Kurelek seeks to remind the modern viewer of the persistence of the divine within the present day. Second, the presence of the crucifix highlights the artist’s particular understanding of painted memories as offering not simply facsimiles of a private past, but also moments that achieve a reckoned significance and symbolic force through the power of hindsight.

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. In 2017, Kear authored the Art Canada Institute publication William Kurelek: Life & Work.

Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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