William Kurelek, seen in this self portrait, is one of the three artists that Herman Goodden explores in his new book. 'Three arists: Kurelek, Chambers and Curone.' courtesy of The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario copyright The Estate of William Kurelek. Courtesy of the Wynick/Tuck Gallery, Toronto.

New book chronicles Canadian artists’ lives of faith and search for meaning

  • December 3, 2016

If you think of artists as strange, unbalanced, complicated personalities whose natural habitat is somewhere on the margins, Herman Goodden is not about to change your opinion. But if you think books about art and artists are dull, academic, jargon-laden wastes of time, paper and ink, Goodden wants you to think again.

In his new book about three important 20th-century Canadian painters, Goodden does his best to include all the weirdness he could dig up about William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe. But it’s not weird for weirdness sake. Goodden wants to tell stories — stories that give you a concrete sense of the lives of his three artists.

There’s the story about how Chambers in 1954 used a pound of sausage to distract Pablo Picasso’s guard dogs, then invaded the house of the most famous artist in the world so he could ask for advice about where he should attend art school. Having accomplished this, Chambers ignored Picasso’s advice and caught the next train out of town.

Curnoe stayed three years at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto resolutely flunking courses and insisting that his old high school art program at H.B. Beal Secondary School in London, Ont., was far superior.

But Curnoe and Chambers were not really crazy. In fact, Goodden finds himself impressed by Curnoe’s upright, hardworking artist’s ethic.

“Curnoe was utterly faithful to his first and only wife Sheila, was emotionally and practically very present in the raising of their three children — Owen (born 1966), Galen (1968) and Zoe (1971) — was refreshingly un-eccentric and un-self-preoccupied, and for all the unorthodoxy of his calling as an artist and the originality of his vision, Curnoe displayed a sober and hard-working diligence that would’ve paid equally big dividends in hardware store management or accounting,” Goodden writes in Three Artists: Kurelek, Chambers and Curnoe released in November by Elmwood Publications.

The book was commissioned by the Catholic Art Guild of London, Ont., which wanted Goodden, whose writing occasionally appears in The Catholic Register, to tell the stories of these three remarkable artists, including their lives of faith and their search for meaning.

In William Kurelek, easily Canada’s most popular painter from the 1960s through the 1980s, Goodden has tales to tell of real madness — not peculiarity or eccentricity, but crushing, debilitating mental illness.

In 1952 a depressed and traumatized Kurelek knew he was losing his sanity. He became fascinated with experiments in art therapy undertaken at England’s Netherne Hospital. He wrote to ask whether he could be treated there.

Hospital administrators replied that Canada was somewhat out of their catchment area. So Kurelek moved to England. He arrived June 1, 1952 and was admitted to London’s Maudsley Hospital (sister institution to the Netherne) on June 4.

Kurelek spent the better part of a decade in and out of the Maudsley and Netherne Hospitals and became the only Canadian artist whose sanity was saved by a Catholic newspaper. The Catholic newspaper’s role in saving Kurelek was minor, but crucial. While at Maudsley Kurelek was thoroughly frustrated and disappointed by his course of treatment. His one ray of light was an occupational therapist named Margaret Smith. Smith and Kurelek would talk about all sorts of things and the talk left the 25-year-old artist, atheist and socialist feeling less estranged from the world. Among their mutual interests was poetry. When Smith gave Kurelek a book of poems wrapped (for protection) in a Catholic newspaper, Kurelek was confronted with the idea that the one person he could talk to was somebody who actually believed in everything that he had rejected.

Jack chambersJack Chambers: Sunday Morning No. 2, Loch Gallery, Toronto copyright The Estate of Jack Chambers. (Courtesy of John and Diego Chambers.)

Smith never tried to convert him or even explain her faith to the young artist. When Kurelek asked Smith whether she was praying for him, she said yes. It was just there, a fact Kurelek had to deal with — the person who understood him best, whom he could speak to most easily, actually prayed, believed in God and accepted the authority of the Church.

Kurelek didn’t just become Catholic. He became the sort of Catholic the art world could not abide. Open and up-front about his religious convictions, much of Kurelek’s output was explicitly religious in a way that was unimaginable for a generation of artists who hid their spirituality behind gestures in paint and high concepts in psychology and philosophy. In the age of minimalism, Kurelek was using paintings to tell stories, publishing his work in book form — A Northern Nativity, Kurelek’s Canada, A Prairie Boy’s Winter.

Goodden recounts how the art community reacted to Kurelek.

“Probably the most damning instance of the complete disregard for Kurelek and what he was trying to do was by Dennis Reid in, I think it was about ’73 or so, a few years before Kurelek dies (1977),”  Goodden told The Catholic Register. “(He) comes out with A Concise History of Canadian Painting published by Oxford University Press. Kurelek is then at his peak. He does not get mentioned. William Kurelek does not exist, according to this Concise History.

“Then (Reid) revamped it in the ’80s (second edition, 1988), years after Kurelek had died. And he worked in three paragraphs. Among those three paragraphs was ‘At the time of his death, William Kurelek was the most popular artist in the country.’ ”

It might have been nice if the art world had been willing to acknowledge Kurelek’s accomplishment while the artist was still alive, said Goodden.

In the end, Goodden finds himself with stories of three men who were outsiders — whether by choice or by circumstance.

Jack Chambers took umbrage when the National Gallery of Canada in 1967 thought he would be so honoured to have his paintings included in a package of educational materials the gallery provided to schools that he wouldn’t want actual payment for his work. He fought back by writing to over 100 artists across the country and forming Canadian Artists Representation to demand that artists be paid for their work. The National Gallery from that point forward did not show any Chambers paintings or collect any of his work during his lifetime.

Greg Curnoe spent his life sneering at the New York art scene and Americans in general. And he had unkind words to say about Toronto when the city seemed to present itself as another New York.

“He was the guy who proved, if you put your foot down, you don’t have to go to New York. You don’t have to go to Toronto. You don’t have to suck up to anyone,” said Goodden.

Though Curnoe was more than skeptical of religion, Goodden makes the case that he inherited from his United Church mother a Protestant spirit that drove him.

“He was a very vigorous Protestant. He was not a Protestant Christian, but he was a Protestant artist,” said Goodden.

Art was Curnoe’s means of kicking back at every kind of authority — the authority of the art market, the authority of American culture, the authority of academic experts.

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