Jewish Life in Canada: William Kurelek

Goose Lane Editions in conjunction with the McMichael Gallery has produced an impressive coffee-table edition of William Kurelek’s Jewish Life in Canada, upgrading the original 1976 edition published by Hurtig. Sarah Milroy’s “Introduction,” David Koffman’s essay “Painting Jewish Life in Canada,” Ian Dejardin’s examination of Kurelek’s frames, John Geoghegan’s study of photographic sources, Natalka Husar’s Ukrainian art, and Kurelek’s own descriptions supplement and complement the sixteen beautifully reproduced paintings.

            Through his friendship with Av Isaacs, whose gallery exhibited Kurelek’s work, and through his attempts to atone for centuries of antisemitism, Kurelek displays great empathy for his subjects. As a Ukrainian Canadian, he understood immigrant status, and as an outsider himself he portrays Jewish settling in his idiosyncratic style, described by curator Tobi Bruce as “pictorial staging.” One of the many photographs in this book shows Kurelek and Isaacs on either side of a tilted frame that unites the two friends. The importance of frames in Kurelek’s life and work is the subject of Ian Dejardin’s fine essay toward the end of the book. Preceding his contribution is an equally worthy discussion of Kurelek’s photographic sources, which concludes that “His mission was not one of verisimilitude; it was one of evocation.” The artist’s frames and angles of vision demonstrate his evocative pictures of Jewish life, as if they were midrashic, imaginative commentaries on the immigrant experience in Canada.

            Although diagonals are used universally by artists to achieve certain effects, the diagonal is particularly interesting in Canadian-Jewish perspectives, and the framed diagonals in the relationship between painter and gallery owner serve as an introduction to Kurelek’s frequent foregrounding of diagonals in several of his paintings about the Jewish experience. Consider the first example in the series, Jewish Immigrants Arriving on the Prairies. While the grain elevator, train station, and human figures dominate the vertical plane against the horizon, the diagonals of railway tracks receding to a vanishing point, wooden railway ties like pick-up sticks, and the “ship ticket” held by a solitary woman offer a different perspective. In reality the tracks would be horizontal, but in the painting they branch off diagonally to achieve a perspective and vanishing point that are symbolic of unknown directions for recent arrivals to the prairies. Similarly, the hodgepodge of redundant railway ties suggests the uncertainty of direction for these newcomers, as does the ship ticket clutched by the faceless woman who stares at the train disappearing into the distance. Women’s white head coverings extend diagonally across their bodies as if they were the equivalent of men’s prayer shawls depicted in other paintings in the series. One fringe tracks the ship ticket; the other follows the train tracks. These diagonals heighten the experience of being swallowed up on the prairies. Kurelek’s words describe this experience, which expresses the tension between frames and diagonals: “This was like a passport to freedom and economic opportunity for each new Jewish immigrant in Canada, after the persecution and feeling of being unwanted in Europe.” In other words, diagonals look forward to freedom in the new land and backwards to antisemitism in Europe.

            If these diagonals seem haphazard, one need only turn to the second painting, Jewish Home Life, Montreal. Here a domestic interior features a tilted mezuza on the door frame, one of several frames and segments. The energy of the interior appears in the diagonals: the boy’s violin bow and music stand point to mezuza in Montreal’s music, even as the rolling pin and dough in the kitchen, and one girl’s pen and another’s stirring spoon angle toward the slanted Torah scroll in the study room. A sleeping infant rests angularly under the mezuza amidst all the activity. That Kurelek situates this scene in Montreal points to his dual vision between eastern city and rural prairies – a polarity that appears in A.M. Klein’s poem, “Grain Elevator.” Klein conflates and displaces his Montreal subject with Saskatchewan “rolled like a rug of a thick and golden thread.” Klein slants his grain elevator toward biblical roots and routes: “it rises blond and babylonian / like something out of a legend,” or, out of Kurelek’s Bruegelesque paintings. Klein’s elevator is a leviathan, “a blind ark lost and petrified,” a Josephdream where sheaves bow down: “the sight of it leaning in my eyes / mixes up continents and makes a montage.” Klein’s and Kurelek’s diagonals run in parallel between an “eastern tomb” and “prison of prairies”: “some other races claim / the twinship of my thought.” Klein’s words enter Kurelek’s Ukrainian frames and colours until they both tell it slant. The poet’s 1948 “Grain Elevator” stands between the painter’s 1975 rendition of early twentieth-century life.

            Frames stabilize and segment the narrative within Jewish Home Life, Montreal. The first open door frame connects children’s music to the kitchen’s activities. The second door is closed, divided by many glass panes that silence the sacred study from musical practice and kitchen stirring. Draped in white prayer shawls, the men reflect white candles in a menorah and whiteness in the kitchen from the mother’s head covering, white dough, table surface, and daughter’s face covered by white steam emanating from a large white pot. We rarely glimpse the eyes or mouth’s features in Kurelek’s field of vision. So many of his figures lean into their new surroundings, even as they bend from the past.

            Jewish Dairy Farm Outside Winnipeg shapes barns in diagonals with one upper window in a diagonal frame, one stick leaning against the barn, and diagonal poles reaching skyward from a huge bale of hay. The reins from the horses to the rider on the bale are also diagonals that get extended upward to unite fluffy bale to clouds, even as framer and farmer are connected anagrammatically. Kurelek’s dynamic between rectangular frames and angular lines recurs in Jewish Separate School in Winnipeg, where the teacher’s chalk and book, children’s bent bodies and angled desks contrast with window frame, blackboard, and pictures on the walls. Each item in the classroom is instructive in its evocative commentary. Diagonals abound in Pioneering at Edenbridge, Saskatchewan to emphasize the progress of the pioneers. A window frame inserted into Jewish Store in Vancouver Before World War One is angled to coincide with diagonals of activity in the women’s reach and extension. Similarly, diagonals in Teperman Wrecking Firm in Toronto energize the labour against other frames throughout the painting.

            Doctor’s Family Celebrating Passover in Halifax features the doctor’s prayer shawl in diagonal to engage tradition as it spans Kurelek’s canvases across Canadian distances. Emblematic diagonals also appear in the interaction of Israeli and Canadian flags in A Zionist Society in Montreal Honouring Its University Grads, where the certificates of achievement are placed diagonally. Flourishes of diagonals permeate Yom Kippur when the service in Toronto’s Kiever Synagogue is highly animated against various frames.

            Kurelek paints a vivid and vibrant picture of Canada’s Jewish community across the land. He has preserved a vanishing way of life in his stretch of canvas and evocative frames.

Sarah Milroy is the Chief Curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. A highly respected art critic and exhibition curator, she has contributed to more than a dozen books on art, including Mary PrattFrom the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, and David Milne: Modern Painting.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (May 9 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 140 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773103199
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773103198