Nightmare by William Kurelek

Colin Gale of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives & Museum gave a tour through the history of the ancient hospital in the form of five items from the archive. Previous posts are on the statues of mania and melancholia, the first medical note book, James Tilly Matthews’ vision of a sinister  Airloom Machine, and photographs of Victorian patient Emma Riches.

The last piece in the series is Nightmare, a work by Canadian artist William Kurelek, who was a patient at Bethlem’s sister hospital, the Maudsley, in the 1950s. It is a powerful example of a patient communicating his own reality not just to those involved in treating him at the time but to anyone viewing it now.

William Kurelek was a young Canadian artist who had come to Europe partly to further his art education by visiting the great museums of Europe. He also had heard of the Maudsley Hospital and, aware that he had psychological problems, hoped the doctors could help him. He admitted himself soon after his arrival.

Kurelek was the sensitive oldest son of  two Ukrainian emigrants to Canada. At odds with his father, his schoolmates and the prairie farming culture in which he was brought up, he had suffered from hallucinations from childhood and by the time he arrived at the Maudsley in his late 20s had more than once attempted suicide.

“I carried my wretchedness like a heavy stone sewn up inside of me,” he later wrote, in an autobiography. He suffered from occasional psychosomatic deafness, as result he believed of the taunts and shouts that rang through his childhood, in particular from his father.

‘Kurelek was a troubled young man,’ says Colin Gale, ‘whose family relationships were subject to strain. But what Nightmare shows is that he employed his skills as an artist to communicate with his doctors.

‘William Kurelek shows his own huddled form at the centre of this work, being assaulted in bed by demonic figures. Around the bed is represented everything that is going on in his head, everything in his past and his perspectives on psychiatric treatment.

‘He would show the drawings to the doctors and say, in effect, “Look, this is how it is for me.” In one picture, he actually depicts his doctor confined in stocks with himself (Kurelek) beside him, pointing to a wall on which all his fears and insecurities are depicted, as if to say “Don’t you understand?”

‘It’s said that Kurelek would sometimes draw pictures, show them to his doctor, then tear them up for effect.. But in those that remain, we have a patient perspective represented forcibly and expressively.

‘William Kurelek went back to Canada and became a famous and well-respected artist. Out of the Maze, also here at the Archives & Museum, is one of his later works, which he donated to the hospital in gratitude for what they’d done for him.

‘Painted 20 years later, in the 1970s, it shows him picnicking with his young family on the Canadian prairie. On the horizon is what may be part of a mushroom cloud. Here is a hint of one of Kurelek’s later preoccupations: the possibility, ever present in the era of the Cold War, of nuclear conflagration.’

William Kurelek died in 1977. His paintings can be seen in collections around the world; ‘Nightmare’ and  ‘Out of the Maze’ remain in the Bethlem Hospital gallery.

More details of the Bethlem Archives & Museum can be found here.








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