The art of healing the mind

The Maze by William Kurelek (1927-1977); on display at the Novas Gallery in Southwark as part of an exhibition called Redefining Bedlam: The Art of Healing the Mind, which features more than 200 works by artists with mental illnesses, and runs until August 18th. 

The Maze was painted just a few miles away from the Novas Gallery, in 1953, while Kurelek was a patient at the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill. Read his own description of the painting, and see Out of the Maze, which he painted in 1971, below.

(Click both pics to enlarge)  

The subject, seen as a whole, is of a man (representing me) lying on a barren plain before a wheatfield, with his head split open. The point of view is from the top of his head. The subject is then roughly divided into the left hand side of the picture, with the thoughts made in his head represented as a maze; and the right hand side, the view of the rest of his body. The hands and feet are seen through the eyes, nose and mouth, tapering off into the distance and the outside world. The Maze. An exitless one, it occupies and divides the inside of the cranium into groups of thoughts, the passageways being calculated to do the grouping. The white rat curled up in the central cavity represents my Spirit (I suppose). He is curled up with frustration from having run the passages so long without hope of escaping out of this maze of unhappy thoughts. Outside World. Grasshoppers and drought (sun before the clouds) represent the mercilessness of Nature, which bankrupted my father, a farmer, and brought out of him the cornered beast. The thorny, stony ground is a kind of T.S. Eliot Wasteland — spiritual and cultural barrenness: the pile of excrement with flies on it represents my view of the world and the people that live on it. The loosened red ribbon bound together the head of a T.S. Eliot Hollow Man, and was united by psychotherapy (Dr Cormier), but since the outside world is still unappealing, the rat remains inert. Before the head was opened, burrs (bitter experiences) choked the throat and pricked the sensitive underside of the tongue, and when it was opened the sawdust and shavings (tasteless education) spilled out from on top the tongue: mixed with the sawdust are symbols of (to me) equally tasteless Art, painting, literature and music. The burrs also represent, in the eye socket, the successive evaluations of my character by any friend during the process of acquaintance, all repellant but hopeful till the last, when the heart is discovered to be a grub. On the tongue and in the throat, the Kurelek family (big burrs produce little burrs), representing my father as the hard domineering blue burr opening up the mushy yellow burr, my mother, to release a common lot of burrs, my brothers and sisters, and one unique orange one — myself. The last burr, spearing culture, is I at the university. The inverted one is I as a child, trapped painfully between two aspects of my father, the one I hated and the one I worshipped.

Out of the Maze was painted after Kurelek’s recovery, but the skull in the bottom left corner is a reminder of his illness, and the dark cloud alludes to his premonition of an impending nuclear holocaust.


3 thoughts on “The art of healing the mind

  1. Wonderful, I saw The Maze once somewhere with no mention of the title and author of this painting, now I know!
    To anyone interested in “psychiatric art”, I would like to recommend the “Musée de l’Art Brut” at Lausanne, Switzerland (my hometown). There you have an awesome collection of paintings, sculptures and many bizarre objects. It’s fun to try to “diagnose” the artist before you read the explanations…
    By the way, can you really see a skull down there or is it something that the painter explicitly mentioned?

  2. Darn it, I really wanted to see this exhibition. Not enough tine in the world.
    Honestly, although I like this piece a lot as a neuroscientist, I have to wonder if art that requires this much explication is truly successful. The whole collection of burrs is an example – far too personal and obscure to establish a dialogue with or response within the viewer. Without the long explanation, it just doesn’t evoke universal themes that most people will be able to relate to. Unlike the work of other psychologically impaired artists (like Van Gogh or Dadd), I’d argue this piece is more self-directed therapy than pure art – not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, and not to imply that the artist himself isn’t highly skilled.
    Of course when I clicked the Guardian link to read the article there, I got a video ad for a show called “Office Star” that depicted a man beating his own butt with drumsticks. So I guess there’s crazy, and then there’s crazy; and there’s art, and there’s art.

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