Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz

The Barbican Mural, 1972, Plymouth, England, Robert Lenkiewicz

An Allegory of Prudence after Titian,
1978, Self-portrait, Robert Lenkiewicz.
Very often in trying to decided whether to write about modern-day artists I find myself in a sometimes painful position of having to evaluate that artist's life's work either before that life itself is finished, or based upon a similarly incomplete understanding of his or her place in, not just contemporary art circles, but in the broader context of the world history of art. On the flipside of that coin, on rare occasions, I encounter a present day (or recently deceased) artist which leaves me scratching my scalp wondering why I've never heard of them before. One such artist is (or was, he died in 2002) Robert Lenkiewicz. All to often, present day art and artists are only skin-deep (so to speak). Lenkiewicz drove to such depths as to nearly touch the soul of the thousands (that's not hyperbole) who posed for him over his lifetime, which began in 1941 amid the Jewish ghettos of wartime London.
The Last Supper, Robert Lenkiewicz (an unusual subject for a Jewish artist).
Death Bed, Robert Lenkiewicz.
He once faked his own death to find out
whatit was like to be thought dead.
Robert Lenkiewicz's parents ran a rundown hotel in London where stayed Jewish refugees from Hitler's persecution in Germany and its neighbors (the term, "Holocaust," was not yet in use at the time). Accounts vary as to their numbers, but suffice to say the young Lenkiewicz was exposed to the human pathos of this genocidal tragedy at a young age. It was to remain with him as an artist all his life, and in one form or another, completely dominate his enormous body of highly realistic work. Lenkiewicz's earliest training in art centered upon architecture, but after seeing a filmed biography of Rembrandt, he decided he wanted to be a painter. At sixteen Lenkiewicz began his art studies at Saint Martin's School of Art and later at the Royal Academy. But unlike many of his peers, Lenkiewicz was little interested in contemporary art movements, gravitating instead toward classical subjects and attitudes (above) he saw in Britain's many museums devoted to such art. His 1978 self-portrait (above, right) reflects this fascination with the past and the effect of passing years as seen in his own face.

Cider Ryder (Les Ryder), Robert Lenkiewicz
Lenkiewicz outside his Plymouth
studio, 1994
In the early 1960s, the young artist opened his own studio in London, welcoming as his subjects the very dregs of London's cesspool of homeless low-lifes, addicts, criminals, and the mentally ill, all of whom he painted (above). Needless to say, this didn't make him very popular with his neighbors. To put it succinctly they forced him to move. As a result, Lenkiewicz washed his hands of the London art world. Never looking back, he headed for the artists' enclave along the Cornwall coast of southwestern England, first to a remote cottage near Lanreath where he eked out a meager existence for his growing family (he eventually fathered eleven children) by teaching painting. Some time later, he was offered free studio space in Plymouth on the Barbican. Neither the man nor his penchant for helping the derelict losers of British society had changed. He eventually attracted such a "following" he decided to commandeer a deserted warehouse to house them all (entry was by way of a ladder to an upstairs window). There he not only painted, but in 1973, hosted an exhibition of his work (the Vagrancy Project) featuring a cast of his favorite street-life characters. Plymouth was not London. The local art world welcomed such legitimate and timely social comment, while at the same time congratulating themselves that their own community was largely untouched by such deprivation...until the exhibit was suddenly flooded with the subjects of Lenkiewicz work themselves.
The Temptation of St. Antony, Robert Lenkiewicz                        
Detail from Temptation of
St. Antony (left-center, above)
Lenkiewicz was unique as an artist. He had no bank account. In fact, he seldom sold his work. If and when an interested buyer wanted a painting, they would be presented with one or more bills owed by the artist. Once the creditors were satisfied, the "sale" was completed. It wasn't until the 1990s, when success more or less "overtook" him, that his finances began to become normalized. Even so, at the time of his death, he had less than twelve pounds in cash and debts of more than two-million pounds. Thus it's little wonder settling his estate was nothing short of a nightmare, encompassing more than eleven years. After his death, Lenkiewicz paintings sold at auction for prices in five and six figures. His 25,000 volume library alone brought over a million pounds.
A strategically cropped detail of
Lenkiewicz's naked self-portrait.

What was it about Lenkiewicz and his work that it was to have such an impact on the British art world when he died of a heart attack at the age of sixty? First of all it was a delayed impact. That is, during his lifetime he was never popular with the high-art London art crowd. His paintings dealt with death, religion, mental illness (below), homelessness, and most prominently, addictions of all kinds, which he felt were all identical or very similar psychologically. His paintings propounded this theory, with deep insights to the point of gut-wrenching ugliness and obscenity. His exploration of the inner being of his subjects also included himself, as he left behind a quantity of deeply probing self-portraits rivaling or surpassing in every respect those of his idols Rembrandt and van Gogh. Very often his self-portraits featured himself with a paint brush in one hand, a naked woman in the other. He even painted himself, well advanced in years, completely naked (above, right, not nude, but very, very naked). His wife, children, friends, and portrait subjects were often depicted in a similar state.
One of a series of Lenkiewicz paintings featuring the mentally ill.

Diogenes as Death and The Maiden,
Robert Lenkiewicz
Lenkiewicz delved into such taboo art content as Jealousy (1977), Orgasm (1978), Suicide (1980) and Sexual Behavior (1983)--obviously not subjects for the living room wall. Some of his works would, in fact, would have demanded a very LARGE living room. As a student he once painted a canvas 364 feet in length. His instructor asked, "What happened, you run out of canvas?" During his many years as virtually destitute himself, Lenkiewicz as known to scrounge up fabric upon which to paint from neighborhood dumpsters. In the town of Plymouth, Lenkiewicz became something of a tourist attraction himself. Right next door to his gallery was a three-story wall upon which he painted his famous Barbican Mural (top). Completed in 1972, its 3000 square feet area is concerned with metaphysical ideas present in England during the Elizabethan Age. The painter's notes explain: "These ideas cover the following activities: Philosophy; Alchemy; Cabala; Ceremonial Magic; the symbolic aspects of poetry, music and art; the cult of melancholy, chivalry, and similar allegorical trends." Sadly, the mural has now faded and is badly in need of repair.
Lenkiewicz's unfinished "round room" mural, Port Eliot House, St Germans, Cornwall.
Another mural, this one inside a forty-foot, round, drawing room in St. Germans, Cornwall, was painted by Lenkiewicz over a period of 30 years. It was unfinished at his death. The mural is in two halves. One half depicts death, destruction, insanity, unrequited love, and the apocalyptic end of the world, while the other reflects love and affection, friendships, harmony, proportion and consensus. Within the overall picture are concealed various references to family skeletons, art history and cabalistic mysteries making for what Lenkiewicz called his "Riddle Mural."

The Riddle Mural (unfinished), Robert Lenkiewicz

Click below for additional insights into Lenkiewicz's work:

No comments:

Post a Comment