An artist captivated by hidden communities and social issues, Robert Lenkiewicz painted throughout his career without apology or compromise. Though little recognised by art circles during his lifetime, Lenkiewicz gathered a strong following from the public – recently evidenced by the thousands who visited the recent exhibition of his work at Ocean Studios. In a similar vein to his subjects on canvas, the artist led a colourful life populated by curious characters and unusual obsessions. In the first of our ‘Artist Spotlight’ series, published each Friday, we’ll be exploring the ever-so provocative life of South-West artist, Robert Lenkiewicz.
The unusual life of Lenkiewicz can be traced back to as far as his childhood. Forced to leave Germany as Jewish refugees, his parents fled to North London and opened a small hotel. Born in 1941, Lenkiewicz would be brought up there alongside his two siblings and was surrounded by residents who were often elderly Holocaust survivors. This family model, comprised of the dispossessed and devastated, would have a marked impact throughout Lenkiewicz’s life, sparking an early awareness of the difficulties and prejudices faced by minority groups. The artist would also become darkly familiar with death from a young age; he would witness many of the older residents pass away and apparently even assisted his mother to move those who had died on the premises.
Lenkiewicz showed artistic skill from a young age – the two self-portraits above were painted by the artist at fifteen. A year later, he was accepted into St. Martins School of Art based on the skill of his drawings of dissected pigeons. Following his further education at the Royal Academy, the artist left his impoverished situation in London and eventually settled in Plymouth in the 1970s. Rapidly becoming a notorious local, Lenkiewicz went from door-to-door in the city selling watercolours for a couple of pounds. He also quickly built a strong rapport with the disadvantaged in society, people who soon became the focus of his paintings. Enthralled by those relegated to the fringes of communities, Lenkiewicz began working in projects depicting social minorities and seemingly psychological ‘taboos’: Old Age, Suicide, Mental Handicap, Orgasm, Addictive Behaviour. One of his most extensive projects is entitled Vagrancy, a few paintings from which can be seen below. With paintings accumulating in his studio on Plymouth’s Barbican, Lenkiewicz decided to throw an exhibition of the project in 1972. Though it received little critical acclaim, the show gathered much attention and provoked thought across the local area.
Lenkiewicz was also extremely invested in the people of his paintings. One of his closest and well-known friends was Diogenes, a homeless man whom the artist named after the Greek philosopher. Diogenes became the subject of many portraits and even lived in Lenkiewicz’s studios for fifteen years. Prior to Diogenes’ death, the artist agreed to render his corpse an enduring work of art. A man of his word he certainly was: Lenkiewicz embalmed the body and, despite the authorities’ attempts to interfere, kept it hidden for the remainder of his life. Only would it be uncovered following Lenkiewicz’s death in 2002, found in a cupboard drawer of his studio. Diogenes’ wish to endure as art was granted; in 2011, RWA in Bristol held an exhibition of Lenkiewicz’s artwork, of which the preserved body formed a central part. In Lenkiewicz’s own words, he believed, ‘Diogenes would have smiled at how much more concern there has been for his death than he received alive.’
Images L-R: Detail from The Burial of Education (1986), Self-Portrait aged 15 (1956), Self-Portrait (1956), Mr Fisher (The Bishop) in Pierrot Costume with Clown Doll (1973), Les Ryder Just Out of Prison (1996), Les Ryder with Grey Blanket (1996). Images via robertlenkiewicz.org, all rights reserved.