Robert Lenkiewicz is one of my favourite painters. He died in 2002, age 60, of complications arising from heart problems. I was reminded again of Robert by a letter from his friend Henryk Ptasiewicz. I commend this letter to you. Henryk’s letter is in the responses to the past letter, Just for today.
Born in north London, the son of refugees who ran a Jewish hotel, Lenkiewicz went to St Martin’s College of Art and Design at the age of 16 and later the Royal Academy. However, he was largely self-taught.
Lenkiewicz worked in “projects.” He took subjects that interested him and explored the possibilities until they exhausted or bored him. These included concerns like Jealousy, Suicide, Self, Love and Death. They were often depicted in an allegorical style.
Inspired by Albert Schweitzer, Lenkiewicz opened his Hampstead studios to the dispossessed. Vagrants, criminals and alcoholics appear in his paintings. In 1964, after complaints from neighbours, he was urged by the police to move. He settled in Plymouth, Devon, where he soon took over warehouses to accommodate vagrants. One space became an exhibition project in 1973 — paintings of vagrants together with a collection of notes written by the sitters themselves. Lenkiewicz used this method of presenting information throughout his career.
In hundreds of portraits Lenkiewicz captured what he saw as the blandness and cynicism of his sitters. Paintings of teachers and bureaucrats were, like the artist’s life, loaded with irony. He viewed the educational system as the “mass spiritual slaughter of the young,” which prepared them for a life of exploitation.
Lenkiewicz was a gentle giant. A compassionate mind, his life could also be said to be a celebration of love and the adoration of femininity. In “The Painter with Women,” “Observations on the Theme of the Double,” and “The Falling in Love Experience,” he rallied against the idea of treating others, and things, as property. For Lenkiewicz, property was “the straight road to fascism, brutishness and violence.”
PS: “The truth is that I am very, very keen on the opinion of the man in the street.” (Robert Lenkiewicz)
Esoterica: Quality work shines and glows beyond persona and popular opinion. “His free-thinking ways scandalized authority. He is survived by one son and one daughter from his three marriages, and thirteen other children.” (Mark Penwill, Obituary, The Guardian)
This letter was originally published as “The art of Robert Lenkiewicz” on August 22, 2003.
“The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind.” (Marina Abramovic)