I have been curious about an artist called Robert Lenkiewicz (RL) for sometime and reading the first question about political, economic and social factors made me think a little about him. My curiosity originates from this sketch and moreover the little girl is me (please note I have kind permission that it is included with the kind and direct permission of the Lenkiewicz Foundation of Plymouth who hold copyright). Mr Lenkiewicz is a part of my own childhood and in some ways a part of my day to day life as this sketch hangs in my home.
He was born in London in 1941 to German-Polish refugees who had fled their home country before the outbreak of World War 2 and ran the ‘only Jewish guesthouse in town’ and whose many occupants included concentration camp survivors. He occasionally used to help his mother with washing down a body after a resident/guest had died on the premises. Eventually he gained places at St Martin’s School of Art and also the Royal Academy and from there he set up his own studio.
Right from the start he wanted to be known as what he himself called a “sociological enquirer” and what he meant was that he painted a person as he saw it and revealed their “transient or haunting side” – my own sketch shows a fearful little girl which my late Mum told me was because of his long straggly hair and beard (to a child he does look quite scarey!). RL liked to paint tramps, the mentally ill, criminals and generally people who were unfortunate in life and it is this that meant the Metropolitan police asked him to leave London as this was not what they wanted for the affluent area of London (Hampstead) where he lived and worked at the time. As a note I have friends who live there now and it is still a very arty and creative area and I can personally understand both what attracted him to the area i.e. the artists and creative energy but can also understand that the residents and police may not have appreciated the people who became his prime subject matter – socially and economically there may have been fear and misunderstanding by affluent residents (the attitude of ‘we do not want those type around here’) but those less fortunate people were also from the other side of the fence socially and economically and may well have felt similar.
As I know I will cover in the next question in the course my own brother is a professional photographer and many of his subjects are homeless people who he sees not just as piles of rags but as human beings with a story to tell (he does a lot of work to help in his community) and his photographs capture the stories behind the clothes and my own brother helps me understand what RL was trying to do and the message he was trying to portray in his work. My brothers work also includes a lot of other portraits but it doesn’t matter whether the subject is a homeless guy or a professional portrait he captures not just the way the person is physically but their personality including any vulnerabilities in much the same way that RL did with his subjects – it is interesting here for me to compare 2 different art media with 2 very different artists who attempt/ed to capture and portray the same subjects and give the invisible a voice and therefore be seen.
After leaving London RL, with his wife and young child, had a brief spell in Cornwall and then settled in Plymouth where he was to remain for the rest of his life. Plymouth is my home town and where along with my elder brother and parents lived until I was aged 7. I was about 5 when, like many others, RL did this sketch of me – he used to do them for about £2 and the money went on more art materials … quite literally economically this was his bread and butter money.
As is common with councils now the local authority tended to ignore the homeless people of the city so RL held an exhibition that was part of a huge project in a warehouse that people originally gained accessed to via a ladder (hence the exhibition was called ‘Jacobs Ladder’) to highlight the issue and literally dozens of the homeless turned up to the exhibition. RL in fact provided a free Christmas dinner each year for the homelessness of the city until literally just a year before he died as well as providing shelter too. What does strike me about this is because I live in a city where the council over a period of years seem, in my opinion, to want the homelessness to be invisible and my own brother’s work in his adopted town in the USA has also highlighted this issue too – 40 years difference but the same problem caused by economic hard times which was caused by the tumultuous political times plus the social need of various marginalised or less accepted communities.
Over the years RL did many projects covering a wide range of subjects such as suicide, death, mental illness, love, old age and women as well as more traditional landscapes and even some works purely designed to bring in money. Due to the hard economic and political times he was sometimes forced to burn cardboard just to keep warm and most of his money that he earned went straight on paint and art materials – he sometimes even used and painted on the parachute silks thrown away by the very vagrants that were his subjects.
From a very early stage one thing RL did like to do was to paint on large canvasses and this included one which was a mural in the Barbican area of Plymouth that was 3000 square feet and depicted the Jewish thought on Elizabethan philosophy – it seems this became very popular with locals and tourists alike but after one of many rows with the city council he whitewashed the whole painting on April Fools Day and painted 3 flying ducks in its place! I include this story because I do vaguely remember seeing a huge painting – the Barbican was near the fish market we went to regularly and I have this recollection of a wall of colours and not knowing what it was.
As time went on RL looked inwardly and investigated his own relationships and love and this I will come back to later on in relation to another question.
RL’s final project was the one he never finished – a huge project that was to cover every avenue of addiction from alcohol to addictive relationships to theological convictions which as I write is a major topic politically and socially (this week has seen the Charlie Hebdo journalists massacre in Paris by jihadists). RL had come to the conclusions that some relationships that are obsessive and addictive bore the same similarities or identities as those of the alcoholic. As said this project was unfinished as he died of a heart attack at the age of 61 but no doubt would have been a very thought provoking and powerful exhibition.
After his death his story didn’t end because a macabre mystery was solved – during his life RL had met a tramp called Edwin Mackenzie who he nicknamed Diogenes after finding him living in a barrel on a dump. He promised Edwin that after he died he would not hand his body over the authorities and would use him as a human paperweight – the authorities never found him until after RL’s death and then his mummified body was finally found in a drawer of a wardrobe in what has been called the ‘death room’ in his studio (it had other somewhat grim artefacts in it also). As stated above RL did many projects on various subjects and a main theme was death and the obvious conclusion as to why goes back to his childhood helping his mother with the deceased residents of the guest house – his upbringing had a very powerful and lasting effect on who he was as a person and on his life’s work.
Economically it seems that much of his life and his work was influenced by poverty – he himself struggled desperately but through reading and researching his life I question that this is the way he preferred to live in many ways as he was able to really understand many of his subjects on a deep and intense level. RL literally died with £12 in his pocket but due to the number of claimants on his estate (including several mistresses, council rates, Inland Revenue and friends who he had promised work for in return for a financial loan) his works and possessions were eventually sold off – his collection of books (many on the occult and witchcraft) sold at Sotheby’s for £1.6 million and his art work for another £3.4 million.
In direct relation to the question on economics, politics and social RL and his work certainly cover these:
1. The politics of the day were tumultuous and tough – in the 1970’s there was a financial crash, miners strikes and energy crisis and despite a change in government (from Edward Heath to Harold Wilson) getting the country back to work it came with a crippling 30% inflation rate and a highly embarrassing bailout by the International Monetry Fund. At the end of the decade was Jim Callaghan who was humiliated by the unions who gained alot of power – come forward 40 years and our government would like their power reduced (at the time of writing we are approaching a General Election in 3 months). During the 1980’s there was a huge upturn in economics for many but this was followed by a financial crash yet again and this was again caused by the politics of the time – the decades have been somewhat unstable as the political party in power has swung back and forth.
2. As can be seen the politics had a direct relation to hard times economically and there was no doubt a lot of poverty around which RL portrays in many of his works and even before the ’70’s he had been interested in the misfits of society and without question again influenced by his childhood growing up in the guesthouse and with a rocky relationship with his mother (who continued to support him though along with the help of various girlfriends).
3. Socially – RL was by his own account an outsider and does not seem to have been accepted by the art establishment at the time. He helped countless homeless people and provided shelter for them in 9 derelict warehouses around Plymouth using old beds from hospitals. He seemed fascinated by people and liked people to concentrate on the head of his portraits and in particular the gaze but also the way he painted his subjects bodies is with knowledge and sensitivity and also takes account of the surroundings of his subject – each painting tells its own story. RL was very much someone who sought out social misfits and was fascinated by them along with the themes of the projects he chose – all selected from the surrounds of the city he chose to call home. What is a surprise is that by the time he had decided on his style of art he was also a lover of books and was widely read and eventually amassed a collection of 50,000 rare antiquarian books arranged in his various properties around Plymouth in subject order of witchcraft, metaphysics and art biographies – I say a surprise because of my first impression of him as a fearful young child but now maybe not so because he did the same research on his favoured subjects and artists that I find myself doing about RL himself.
As a note my first job was in an antiquarian bookshop so I do understand his love of rare books and wonder now if one of the customers of the business (a well known antiquarian bookshop in Oxford in the 1980’s through to around 2010) was RL as much of the business was mail order!
Socially there is no question that RL was a well known character around Plymouth and certainly a very interesting one too who tried to capture not just a portrait but a person’s character and, as said, story in his work whilst also not being bothered about being money and if anything it seems he may have even resented paying bills of any nature let alone child maintenance for the children he bore with his mistresses.
Did the social, political and economic circumstances of the day bear a direct relation on his work? these 3 were what his work was about from the days of his early work through to his death in 2002 and had a direct bearing on everything he did.
As for the sketch that started this interest I now look at it with different eyes – I wonder if my fear was not about his beard and straggly hair (and from reading reports he wore a red neckerchief and took on the appearance of many of his vagrant friends which fits my late Mum’s description and memories of him) but maybe I felt he was slightly creepy and he gave this impression due to his interests both socially and in his reading or maybe I just couldn’t, at the age I was, simply understand the complexities of his character.
However another question arises about some of his work – that of how it was perceived then as to how it maybe looked at now. I find some of his projects on love, relationships and similar slightly unsettling for me personally and what was acceptable during the 1960’s through to even the late 1990’s on different subjects may now be perceived slightly differently now and I will expand further on this as my understanding and knowledge of art increases.
I understand now what drove the man who was the artist but my next question to myself is about his actual work and the style which is still looked down upon by so many in the art establishment today as naive or ‘not that good in comparison to others’.
BBC (date unknown). Why does the 1970s get painted as such a bad decade [online]. [Date Accessed: February 2015]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17703483
Jones, A. 15 May 2008. Robert Lenkiewicz: Larger than life and death [online]. [Date Accessed: February 2015]. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/robert-lenkiewicz-larger-than-life-and-death-828934.html
The Lenkiewicz Foundation. 2013. About Robert Lenkiewicz [online]. [Date Accessed: February 2015]. Available from: http://www.robertlenkiewicz.org/