William Kurelek – The Maze (1953)

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.

William Kurelek - The Maze
William Kurelek – The Maze (1953), gouache on board

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.

William Kurelek - Out of the Maze
William Kurelek – Out of the Maze (1971), oil, gouache and pencil on hardboard

22 thoughts on “William Kurelek – The Maze (1953)

    1. Oh wow! What strikes me is that Ash Wednesday does more than simply reflect the hopelessness in “Out of the Maze”. The poem mirrors Kurelek’s life. Kurelek finally escaped his maze thanks to religion – once he converted, just like T.S. Eliot.

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      1. Oh, I did not know that, just took the description of that low point from which spiritual resurrection began from Ash Wednesday.
        And both paintings make a good depiction of depression when the whole world shrinks to the point when it is within your skull and everything outside is rejected

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  1. For me, without the backstory, “Out of the Maze” is a nice, little painting. With the backstory it becomes a fantastic representation or metaphor for a specific state of mind. So pleasant, clean and uncluttered.

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    1. That’s true, once we know how difficult it was for Kurelek to arrive to that peaceful place we have more appreciation for his art, knowing the arduous journey he had to undertake.


  2. I think this might be my favorite painting you’ve posted so far, especially coupled with “out of the maze.” Such a great illustration of the cluttered mind, and racing thoughts, and the internal struggle. What a great painting.

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  3. This post really struck a chord. I’m really grateful to have art to – amongst other things – use as a tool to manifest certain memories and anxieties and to understand and perhaps heal my own mind. The contrast with the later picture really hits hard as well as I know just that feeling of being stuck in the maze for so long but with time and work and help, eventually finding a new a capacity for love and living.

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    1. I’m rather speechless, Craig! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts here. I am not an artist, but I look at art the same way, as a means to better understand myself and the world around me. Even to mere observers these sort of canvases can be highly therapeutic and cathartic. They put a mirror before us and confront us with our own demons and (mis)conceptions.

      Your own art is very expressive, with a twist. It’s quite forceful and it shows you’ve found a better way to deal with your darker thoughts and emotions. Here’s to never being stuck in a maze again!


  4. I saw “The maze” when I was a child, in a book at my grandmother’s house. At that age, it was a very strong experience, it made me feel sadness for the painter. I’m glad that he went “Out of the Maze”.

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    1. Was it in a children’s book, by any chance? I can’t imagine what a child would make of ‘The Maze’, if they’d understand the anguish and the entrapment. I’m glad too that he escaped the maze and we got a somewhat happy ending (he died prematurely of cancer).


      1. Not at all! It wasn’t in a child’s book. At that age, I usually digged into the library of my grandparents, and my father’s library as well, and took books to read. Sometimes that wasn’t a good idea, because I read some things I shouldn’t. I wasn’t prepared.

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        1. Oh, that’s such a relief! That it wasn’t in a children’s book, that is. Kurelek also did illustrations for children’s books, and it would have been so odd if ‘The Maze’ appeared in one of them.

          I think we all read or watched some things we shouldn’t have when we were little. And even if we were technically ready for them, sometimes we needed more time to fully grasp them.

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  5. I saw in a book too as a child! It was part of an illustrated science library published by Life Magazine, the series had books on animals, space, history and in this case The Mind, which was all about the human brain an this was an example of mental illness. But I remember they did not give the name of the painter, possibly in the index , but not in the explanatory article. I never found out who he was until years later. I wonder if it was because he was still alive?

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    1. How odd that they didn’t give the artist’s name, in the context of mental illness and all. Still, it’s wonderful to re-discover childhood’s favorites. I’m glad you eventually found out Kurelek’s name.


    2. I also encountered this painting in the Time-Life book The Mind, in the late 1960s. Stunned me as a youngster, still does in 2020. Anyone know if it’s available to buy as a print?


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