Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the first mature work by the painter William Kurelek (1927–1977), created immediately following his sudden departure from the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). It marks his decision to pursue his artistic talents professionally and reveals his early identification with Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist in James Joyce’s 1916 novel of the same title.
Teeming with symbolism and perceptual layers, the self-portrait is a painting within a painting. It shows the artist before an imposing canvas depicting an “imaginary temple” containing murals representing “different incidents in my life” in Stonewall and Winnipeg, Manitoba. It contains fantastical, nightmarish scenes, including a monstrous Samson or Herculean superman wielding a bone and a man emerging from an egg resembling the scene in Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, 1943, the allegorical painting by Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) about the dawn of the nuclear age. A copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet leans conspicuously behind a loaf of bread in the right foreground.
Kurelek stated that the painting reflects the influence of painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779) and Hans Holbein (1497–1543) and the Pre-Raphaelites and Mexican muralists. Curator Mary Jo Hughes has speculated that the self-portrait is compositionally indebted to Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943–1944, by Ivan Albright (1897–1993), which appears in the 1945 Hollywood adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Although Kurelek never mentions the film, his interest in popular cinema, Victorian literature, and self-portraiture make it difficult to believe he was unaware of it.
This Spotlight is excerpted from William Kurelek: Life & Work by Andrew Kear.