Robert Lenkiewicz was born in London in 1941, the son of refugees who ran a Jewish hotel in Fordwych Road. The loneliness and suffering the young painter witnessed at the hotel was “salutary and thought-provoking” according to Lenkiewicz.
Lenkiewicz was first inspired to paint after seeing Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda’s biographical film Rembrandt and went on to attend Sir Christopher Wren Junior Technical School of Art, Architecture and Building from 1955 to 1958, graduating in art with distinction. At age 16 Lenkiewicz was accepted at Saint Martin’s School of Art and later attended the Royal Academy where he was virtually impervious to contemporary art fashions being more interested in his paintings hanging in the National Gallery.
Inspired by the example of Albert Schweitzer Lenkiewicz threw open the doors of his studios to anyone in need of a roof including vagrants, addicts, criminals and the mentally ill. These individuals were the subjects of many of his paintings as a young man however, such colourful characters were not welcomed by his neighbours and Lenkiewicz was obliged to leave London in 1964.
After leaving London Lenkiewicz moved to the Westcountry and spent a year living in a remote cottage near Lanreath in Cornwall where he supported his young family by teaching. Lenkiewicz was later offered studio space on Plymouth’s waterfront by local artist and businessman John Nash and he artist’s studios once more became a magnet for vagrants and street alcoholics who became the subject of many of Lenkiewicz’s paintings. Their numbers swelled and Lenkiewicz was forced to commandeer derelict warehouses in the city to house the ‘dossers’. One of these warehouses also served as a studio and in 1973 became the exhibition space for the Vagrancy Project.
The Vagrancy Project consisted of several dozen paintings and drawings of vagrants and a large book of notes written by the dossers themselves and those involved in their care and control. Lenkiewicz hoped that the exhibition, and the ‘down and outs’ own stories, would illuminate the plight of these ‘invisible people’ and galvanise the community into humane action on their behalf.
The format of the ‘Project’ – combining thematically linked paintings with the publication of research notes and the collected observations of the sitters – was to be used consistently throughout Lenkiewicz’s career. Projects such as Mental Handicap (1976), Old Age (1979) and Death (1982) followed Vagrancy as Lenkiewicz continued to examine the lives of ostracised, hidden sections of the community and bring them to the attention of the general public. In a parallel line of inquiry, Lenkiewicz also investigated some of society’s most persistent taboos in projects such as Jealousy (1977), Orgasm (1978), Suicide (1980) and Sexual Behaviour (1983). Here Lenkiewicz often adopted an allegorical, pictorial style to portray human physiology in extremis. Lenkiewicz came to the conclusion that the kinds of sensations people felt when a lover abandoned them or when their beliefs were threatened were identical in kind to the ‘withdrawal symptoms’ and anxieties experienced by addicts or alcoholics over their preferred narcotic. These projects thus became an extended study in ‘addictive behaviour’ (the title of his 20th, unfinished, project).
The conclusions drawn from his own observations were supported by his private library, which he viewed as a history of ‘fanatical belief systems’. Lenkiewicz contended that in the absence of any good reasons for our beliefs or emotions we must always look to human physiology for an explanation of fanatical or obsessive behaviour and that it is there that we shall discover the roots of fascism – the tendency to treat another person as property.
Over forty years Lenkiewicz built up a library of some 25,000 books devoted to art, the occult sciences, demonolatry, magic, philosophy, especially metaphysics, alchemy, demonolatry, magic, philosophy, especially metaphysics, alchemy, death, psychology and sexuality, preoccupations which surface in some of his paintings. His collection of books on magic and witchcraft was one of the finest in private hands and was largely sold at Sotheby’s in 2003, and a substantial part of the remainder of his library was sold at auction in May 2007 by Lyon & Turnbull.
Lenkiewicz came to wider public attention when the media highlighted his giant Elizabethan mural completed over the period of a year in the early 1970s on a wall space adjacent to his studio. Controversy followed in 1981 when Lenkiewicz faked his own death in preparation for the forthcoming project on the theme of Death (1982): “I could not know what it was like to be dead” said the artist, “but I could discover what it was like to be thought dead.”
Over the years Lenkiewicz’s work enjoyed increased commercial success and recognition by the establishment. He received a major retrospective in 1997 at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery which was attended by 42,000 visitors. For nearly 30 years, he worked on his masterpiece,the Riddle Mural in the Round Room at Port Eliot house, home of the Earl of St. Germans, but died before its completion. Half of the mural, in the 40-foot-diameter (12 m) room, shows death, destruction, insanity, unrequited love, and the apocalyptic end of the world. The other half reflects love and affection, friendships, harmony, proportion and consensus. Hidden in the work are various references to family skeletons, art history and cabalistic mysteries, hence the name – the Riddle Mural.
Robert Lenkiewicz died in 2002 aged 60. Despite his prolific output, he had only £12 cash in his possession (allegedly having never opened a bank account), and owed £2 million to various creditors. Since his death Lenkiewicz’s paintings have fetched six figure sums in London auction rooms.
In his obituary of Lenkiewicz art critic David Lee observed: “Robert’s greatest gift was to show us that an artist could be genuinely concerned about social and domestic issues and attempt the difficult task of expressing this conscience through the deeply unfashionable medium of figurative painting. In that sense, he was one of few serious painters of contemporary history.”
LIST OF PROJECTS:
· Project 1: Vagrancy
· Project 2: Death and the Maiden
· Project 3: Mental Handicap
· Project 4: Love and Romance
· Project 5: Love and Mediocrity
· Project 6: Paintings Designed to Make Money
· Project 7: Gossip on The Barbican
· Project 8: Jealousy
· Project 9: Orgasm
· Project 10: Self Portrait
· Project 11: Old Age
· Project 12: Suicide
· Project 13: Still Lives
· Project 14: The Painter With Mary
· Project 15: Death
· Project 16: Sexual Behaviour
· Project 17: Observations on Local Education
· Project 18: The Painter With Women
· Project 19: Landscape
· Project 20: Addictive Behaviour
· Project 21: Paintings Painted Blind – On The Theme Of Tobit
· Project 22: Still Lives II (Unfinished)
· Project 23: Time (Unfinished)
· Project 24: The Harrowing of Hell (Unfinished)