This 1953 painting of the inside of an artist’s skull has fascinated me for years


The Maze (1953) by William Kurelek (March 3, 1927 – November 3, 1977) is one of my favorite paintings. I discovered it inside of a fascinating book called The Mind from Life Science Library, written by John Rowan Wilson in 1964. The Mind covers everything from psychoanalytic theory to optical illusions to various mental disorders. Kurelek’s painting is expressive of his struggle with his mental illness, which is why it was included in The Mind

The sectioned-off scenes in this painting, which Kurelek described as « a painting of the inside of my skull, » work in unison to depict a non-linear narrative about Kurelek’s torment and suffering. One part of this work that deeply saddens me is the image of all of the people wearing bright clothing and dancing together, surrounded by all of the other scenes depicting the darkness, suffering, and cruelty that Kurelek faced in his life. It feels like this scene is being looked at through the eyes of an outsider, who is stuck in the darkness of the other scenes which surround that particular image. 

From the description in the book about Kurelek and The Maze

The grotesque painting … reminiscent of Heironumus Bosch’s art, was made by a 26-year-old schizophrenic artist. Raised on a prairie farm in midwestern Canada, he had experienced such a brutal childhood that he had become extremely withdrawn, eventually retiring into a private world of weird fantasies. In one of these, he imagined that if he cut the flesh off his arm (lower right chamber) he would be shocked back into human feelings. When he actually made some cuts on his arm, he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. Here he set to work on the painting he called The Maze. He had great difficulty talking to people. Yet when he began to paint, the images of his torment poured out with remarkable clarity. He portrayed himself lying in an open field, his skull cut open to reveal the painful memories of his past and the morbid fantasies of his present state. Once the imagery of his illness emerged, the artist could step back from the canvas and talk to his doctor about his torment. In time he recovered and married. He still paints, although with a less morbid outlook.

I’m mesmerized by the unique expression of sadness and beauty within Kurelek’s work, and I feel very grateful for artists such as Kurelek who are brave and vulnerable enough to put such deep emotions into their work.  You can see more of Kurelek’s paintings here.