Canadian painter William Kurelek (1927–1977) completed countless memory paintings of his childhood and early adulthood in Alberta and Manitoba. They arguably remain his best-known and most popular body of work. Reminiscences of Youth is unique, however, for its self-reflexivity. In this unconventional self-portrait, Kurelek does not merely offer up a nostalgic scene but paints himself engaged in the act of constructing his own reminiscence.


William Kurelek, Reminiscences of Youth, 1968
William Kurelek, Reminiscences of Youth, 1968

Mixed media on hardboard, 125.1 x 149.5 cm, The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The artist appears as he did in his formative years, lying on a bed in what is likely the Winnipeg house he lived in while attending high school and university in the city—a period during which Kurelek’s appreciation for his parents’ Ukrainian culture was expanding. This is highlighted by the presence of the hastily scrawled words to the Ukrainian folk song “There Stands a High Mountain,” written by the nineteenth-century Romantic lyric poet Leonid Hlibov, on the table in the right foreground. The words and music, which we imagine Kurelek listening to through his record player, highlight the painting’s bittersweet tone: “Spring time will return anew / This it is that brings sadness and pain / For youth will never come back / It will not ever return again.”


This Spotlight is excerpted from William Kurelek: Life & Work by Andrew Kear.

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