Having grown up in the art world, I have seen my fare share of films about Canadian painters. After a while, most of them tend to blend together as they often follow the same formula of attempting to illustrate an artist’s entire life and career using shots of famous paintings and background wilderness sounds. Zooming in and out are about as close as these films get to special effects. So last week when I watched the screening of William Kurelek’s The Maze at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival I left with a very different opinion. The filmmakers literally made the art come alive with animation. The music was contemporary, yet based on what the artist would have listened to while painting. The film was only one hour long and left enough out to necessitate a sequel (currently in production). It’s a bold statement, but William Kurelek’s The Maze is the best film I have ever seen on Canadian art.
This documentary dramatically tells the story of Canadian artist William Kurelek (1927 – 1977) through his art and his on camera revelations. We are shown an intimate look at his struggles with attempted suicide and a self professed “spiritual crisis”. One of the featured works of art, for which the film is named, is The Maze, which Kurelek describes as “a painting of the inside of [his] skull which [he] painted while in England as a patient in Maudsley and Netherne psychiatric hospitals.” The painting depicts a man’s unraveled head lying in a wheatfield with a curled up laboratory rat, representing his spirit, trapped inside a maze of unhappy thoughts and memories.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, the young William Kurelek demonstrated much talent as an artist, though he was ridiculed by his father and wound up doubting himself, which led to suicidal despair and institutionalization. Though he spent a year in a British mental hospital as a result, he didn’t overcome his spiritual and emotional crisis until he converted to Catholicism in 1957.
In this documentary, Kurelek looks back on his development as an artist and the agony he suffered under the judgmental eyes of his parents. This is complimented by an examination of many of his paintings by not only the artist but also his family, psychiatrists and a priest. The viewer is left with a far better understanding of the paintings, particularly those of distressing images.
William Kurelek’s The Maze had been under development for over forty years. In 1969, Robert M. Young was approached by Professor James Maas of Cornell University to create a documentary about psychotic art. When the filmmaker saw William Kurelek’s painting The Maze in the professor’s slide collection, he decided to make a film about the artist who painted it. Partnering with David Grubin, a short version of the film was originally made in 1969 for educational purposes to demonstrate the association between art and psychology. The American Film Festival named it outstanding educational documentary of the year in 1973 and it is still used by professors today.
A feature length film was worked on but never completed, until Young’s sons, Nick and Zack (who also play in the rock band A.i.), recovered the footage, completed their father’s work and brought the film to life. With an original score and modern digital animation techniques, the film is given a contemporary edge while taking the viewer into Kurelek’s world. “There is so much detail and hidden meaning in these paintings,” says Nick,” and William Kurelek’s story becomes all the more compelling when one experiences in High Definition what a masterful artist he was.”
For more information about the film, including showtimes, please visit www.themazemovie.com
William Kurelek's The Maze - Official Trailer from Nick Young on Vimeo.