The old Life Science Library series was one of the milestones of my youth, and the volume on psychology, The Mind, was the book closest to my heart. Not for the explanation of psychoanalytic theory, most of which flew well above my young head (and many of which would probably sound pretty quaint today) but for the section on madness and art.
I still remember the series on the insanity of Louis Wain as revealed by his paintings of progressively more spiky haired and menacing cats, but the show-stopper was a two-page reproduction of The Maze, a painting by William Kurelek that served as an examination of the artist’s lonely childhood on the Canadian prairie: abuse at the hands of a father who considered his son’s artistic interests too effeminate; relentless bullying and violence from his peers; an overwhelming sense of isolation, all compartmentalized as chambers of a cut-open skull lying on the high plains.
I’m apparently not the only one fascinated by this painting: portions of it served as the cover art for Fair Warning, the black sheep in the Van Halen album catalogue (the record started as an Eddie Van Halen solo project, and Eddie’s frequent descriptions of himself as a borderline nutcase make the choice of artwork even more interesting); and the work served as the centerpiece for a 1970 documentary about the life of Kurelek.
Kurelek apparently worked his way back from the brink through a conversion to Catholicism, and he developed a career as a children’s illustrator and painter. These images from his series on the Passion According to Saint Matthew show the same eye for detail displayed in The Maze.
Here’s a video clip based on Kurelek’s series of paintings that transplanted the Nativity to the plains of Canada:
The idea of art therapy and redemption through art may seem quaint, but in Kurelek’s case it seems to be a very real thing.