What’s it like inside the mind of a depressed person? You might expect nothing. Flatness. Hollowness. The most hopeless numbness. If that’s the case, buckle up! William Kurelek is going to take us for a ride. This Canadian artist was 26 years old when he painted The Maze, a fascinating, multilayered journey through one man’s memories, fears, worries and haunting perceptions. The insight and introspection that went into this piece are at a level that no psychiatrist could ever have dreamt of from one of their patients. Because, as it turns out, Kurelek painted this artwork while being treated for depression and schizophrenia at the Maudsley Hospital in London. As a result, the painting reveals itself more as self-analysis than an artistic endeavor, without losing or compromising its powerful and compelling visual impact.
It’s also obvious that Kurelek wanted to impress the staff at the Maudsley Hospital by showing how acutely self-aware he was of his condition. It’s enough just to read his description of the painting and how he explains the symbolism behind each vignette that makes up this intricate composition to realize that he was, in fact, translating into visual language the product of his therapy sessions. We are very lucky to have this roadmap at all, for without it we would get just as stuck in this maze of thoughts and fears as he was.
The painting shows the skull of the artist split in two, as he lies on the ground, in a wheat field. The first half of the skull takes up much of the composition, and it’s presented as a maze, reminiscent of a dollhouse, in which Kurelek’s personal, political, religious and cultural concerns are displayed in highly intricate vignettes. At the very center, we can see a white rat, completely immobilized and unable to escape the maze of misery. It’s not even trying. The rat is the artist’s soul animal, as he explained it. And if you follow the red ribbon, at the top of the painting, this will lead you to the second half of the skull, barely visible in the far right.
Kurelek identified himself – and this skull representation – with the inside of a Hollow Man. This is a direct reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, which draws parallels between the poem and the artist’s self-awareness and perception that he was a broken, lost soul. In light of this, the poem’s famous last lines (This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang, but with a whimper) amplify the paralysis and pain in which the white rat finds itself in Kurelek’s painting.
Of all the vignettes that the artist presents, I have found most endearing the ones about his relationship with the opposite sex. In one of them, he couples the fear of bullying and being beaten up by other boys with being ridiculed by girls. In another one, a merry-go-round of rag dolls symbolizes his lack of coordination and talent for dancing, which must have been a debilitating factor during the dreaded school dances. Last but not least, a bull galloping towards a cow in heat represents the artist’s fear of the animal side in him when it came to sex. I’m sure many of us can relate to these apprehensions and anxieties, though we might not be as self-aware about our own internal landscape. And now I’ll leave you with this interactive website that will help you further explore the painting.
Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that Kurelek eventually escaped his maze, as his 1971 painting Out of the Maze attests.