Relatively few artists are able to look at the world and see clear reality. The cold truth may not achieve decorator popularity, but when savored, it’s exhilarating. Add fantasy and mystery and you have high art. Two painters who have it in spades are Robert Lenkiewicz and Lucian Freud.
Robert Lenkiewicz, (1941-2002) late of Plymouth, England was a radical realist who specialized in vagrants and disturbed street-folks. One of his favourite models was the wise and hairy Edward Mackenzie, who Lenkiewicz referred to as “Diogenes.” When Diogenes passed away, the artist had his body embalmed and installed in a secret drawer in his studio. Weirdness aside, the paintings are exemplary straight-eye works of remarkable facility. Dreams, optimism, humour, humanity, candor, feminine mystique, love and lust are his subjects. He frequently included himself, caught in mid-expression or transient thought, somewhere in the discomforting crossfire of civilizations. His legacy has brought fame to the Barbican of Plymouth and fresh credibility to figurative work.
Lucian Freud (b.1922) is a German-born British painter with a brilliantly straight eye. His subjects include the abject, isolated, alienated and the thoughtful. Showing the fragility of the current human condition, plain truth mingles with stressed awkwardness. The obese, the elderly and the weak are examined without pity — many in sad resignation or outright depression. With Freud we observe the touch of human tenderness, the trusting beauty of animal bonding, the specter of immanent death and the plaintive hope for the morrow.
Where does this purity of sight come from? What does it take to generate this sort of vision? In both artists there was a life-shaking event that lifted the veil. Lenkiewicz, who grew up in London, was banished to the counties for his weirdness. In an artistic sense, he “came out” in the microcosm of Plymouth. Freud, on the other hand, escaped the tyranny of Nazism when his family immigrated to England in 1933. Growing up in a Jewish environment, he never forgot the world’s potential for brutality. But his eyes were sensitized and made more tender by mankind’s poor performance.
PS: “I am looking for an honest man.” (Diogenes the Cynic, 400-325 BCE)
Esoterica: Both young and old may be blessed with above average clarity and honesty. The eyes of youth can be fresh; the eyes of the elderly can be wise. In their early and late attitudes as well as their art, both of my straight-eye painter examples are a curious mixture. You can apply their principles in your studio. To the benefit of both new and well-worn subject matter, take off the glasses of mid-life custom, habit, expectation, obligation and ordinariness. See the subject with the twin blessings of innocence and wisdom. Look before you leap. You may see your work respond with further integrity and honesty.
The straight eye
Robert Lenkiewicz Documentary
Artist appreciation: Lucian Freud (slideshow of work)
Sheltering the neglected
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St Louis, MO, USA
Robert Lenkiewicz life and work shows there’s no secret, just hard work. I had the good fortune to meet him, and go into his Barbican studio. I realized there and then that art is not an easy option, it is an exploration of the world around you trying to make sense of things on different levels. He made between 3-400 paintings a year, it was the sheer scale of them that left an impact. Another thing Lucian Freud and Robert Lenkiewicz had in common was that they were both heavily impacted by the Nazi regime. RL spent a lot of time trying to understand the roots of Fascism. He grew up in a home full of the survivors of the death camps, his parents built a refuge for them, which in turn is what Robert did for the down and outs of his time, giving them shelter in his studios, meals at Christmas. He died way too early, in part because he worked in a freezing cold studio, and it weakened his heart.
Lenkiewicz and photographic reference
by Adolfo McQue, South Africa
I was blown away by Lenkiewicz’s technique, old master size, wide range and social conscience. Do you know if Robert Lenkiewicz used photographic reference in his work, or, like Lucian Freud, did not?
(RG note) Thanks, Adolfo. When I visited his studio in Plymouth in 1995 I was shown around by an assistant. There were photos and slides here and there, but I got the idea that Lenkiewicz worked from all angles — life, reference, fantasy. He was a widely read fellow who was interested in many avenues of thought — history, witchcraft, religious cults, ancient technologies. With his appreciation of illustrational technique he would have been familiar with the methodology of photographic reference.
Freud’s honest approach
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Lucian Freud is one of my favorite artists and I am so glad that you emphasized his honest approach. One thing that may be a bit misleading is that one may conclude that Freud intentionally seeks infirm models, which is not true. He states in his autobiography that he always just simply painted what was around him — his family, neighbors, friends, people he met in the bar. He addressed the commentary about his alleged distortions of human body in his early works — he said that was simply the best he could do at the time. He seems to be a simple man, almost never traveling anywhere, using the same shabby studio in London for the most of his life, brush rags piled into mountains in the corners so they even make a backdrop in many of his paintings. What a simple bare-bones artist! Some consider him simple-minded, but what a master and what a humble life!
Painful and bittersweet
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Clear reality is often painful and bittersweet. For me it must be balanced with escapes into other universes where I am able to express my feelings. This I do by abstraction — I have an abstract ’emotional library’ that helps me deal with such realities as an aging mother with Alzheimers. But the abstract expressionism is based on clear reality, in fact needs a dose of it in order to fan the flame. Thus, every once in awhile I venture into straight-eye work, such as the portrait of my mother, wrinkles, grey hair, and the most alive eyes I have ever seen. As I said, painful and bittersweet.
Visiting the ‘monsters’ of painting
by Lilian Valladares, Switzerland
At the Foundation Maeght in the South of France there was an exposition of the two “monsters” of painting. They were related only in total opposition and behaviour — Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It was not just an accurate sight of fables and reality, but above all, a course in how to paint. Each stroke of colour masterminded in a way that very few can. Leaving techniques aside, as one of the first visitors to the opening, the chance to turn my body around in each room and see from far and from very close every one of the paintings exhibited was one of the most exciting experiences in my career as a painter, as an eternal student of art. I have spent weeks staring in my mind the running faces, colours and forms of Bacon’s works, and each stroke of Freud’s brushes filled with a world of colours. As in a film, all this went thoroughly shifting as if I was surrounded by a thick cloud of fantasy and sadness. Both artists painted the very soul of their subjects. The rest was remaining just for the eyes as a pure, sublime delight.
Artists and their models
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
Quotations from artists concerning their models and comments by the models have always interested me. One of my favorite quotes: Picasso said, when someone observed that Gertrude Stein’s portrait did not look like her, he replied, “Never mind, she will!”
A model that I often use in a workshop is from my local supply of interesting characters is a handicapped person. He has some great costumes in his trunk of memorabilia. To capture the drama of his sittings is always a challenge. His Pirate get-up is always a good subject.
Why are artists shunned?
by Kathy Feig & Robin Pitt-Taylor, Sutton, PQ, Canada
We know a painter who is so honest and outspoken in his work that no gallery other than ours will show his work. We have a good friendship with him. He is a solitary sort and does not join any group. He does not seek recognition and paints under a fictitious name. When he visits galleries, he is repeatedly shown the door and we are curious to know why.
Sensibility to fellow humans
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I used to live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, home of the amazing little Beaverbrook Art Gallery. They are the proud possessors of a Lucien Freud, Hotel bedroom, and recently had their ownership of this and other valuable and wonderful paintings brought into question in a lawsuit by the Beaverbrook Foundation (heirs of Lord Beaverbrook) who sought to lay claim to works that were believed by the gallery to belong to them, as his legacy to the people of N.B. Fortunately, the court found for the gallery, for most of the works, happily the Turner (valued at a cool 20 million), and many other fine paintings. So the Freud is still to be seen there. Lenkiewicz and Freud are not only great painters on the skill level, but have a great sensibility about their fellow human beings.
Drawn to art
by Susan Delaney, AB, Canada
I am inexorably, compulsively, drawn to art and the creative life despite more traditional, lucrative and secure options — I still struggle on a daily basis with the question, “Why?” Worse, I am drawn to landscape which, given my severely intellectual and conceptual training, makes no sense to me and downright frightens me. The snob in me is at war with… something. What is that something? What about this elusive question, “Why art?” I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. Intellectual and conceptual training often poisons the will to create. That’s the “something” you’re at war with. Skilled art, in its purer forms, is a natural human tendency that most people intuitively know is wholesome. The way to overcome the pedagogy and the snobbery is to satisfy your self-directed creative willand go to work. As you gain proficiency you will begin to wonder what all the fuss and prejudice was about.
Unwritten rules about portraiture?
by Andrea Cooper, Whakatane, New Zealand
I am hoping that you might have some wisdom to share on what I assume are unwritten rules about portrait painting. Living down here in New Zealand, I am not to sure how this works. I am wanting to do a portrait of a well-known political figure in American politics. This is not to be formal portrait or a cartoon and will be in a favourable light, if you get my drift. I have recently been doing work, which might be called contemporary social comment. Do you think I have to get this person’s permission? I’m by no means a well-known artist (yet) and I’m sure they are not going to be interested. If this work goes well I would like to exhibit it. I will not be using any professional photos of this person. I understand that kind of copyright.
(RG note) Thanks, Andrea. Some people are so much in the public eye that their fame seems to give permission to copy. Fortunately for us, people can’t be copyrighted. It’s the art (including photography) that’s done of people that may be copyrighted. Go ahead, make your painting. Make it different, make it interesting and make it fun.
Enjoy the past comments below for The straight eye…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Márcio Merg Vaz of Porto Alegre, Brasil who wrote, “I believe I recognized you as a member of the brotherhood referred to by Robert Henri, and your vision and will to share, like with a brother (who tries his eyes and arms with paint on canvas), has been making my life more rich. I especially thank you for introducing me to Robert Lenkiewicz, another complex and compassionate soul.”
And also Steve Mahovlic who wrote, “Is it reality to focus on the challenged and downtrodden? I often wonder about the expression ‘the cold truth’ being used to describe the harder side of life. Does this mean ‘the warm truth’ is the much higher percentage of people who are experiencing a wonderful life?”
And also Josephine Siedlecka of Great Britain, who wrote, “I don’t think it is necessary to just portray the grotesque and ugly in an clear-sighted way. I like really accurate and perceptive portraits of people in all shapes and forms.”
And also Catherine C.R. who wrote, “As an artist and art therapist living in Sweden, I have very little access other visual artists. Today you really inspired me and gave me two great ideas I can use in upcoming art therapy workshops. The two ideas are Lenkiewisz and Freud. Their art works fit in brilliantly with a presentation I’m doing on the origins of art therapy. Both artists’ works are highly realistic yet pack a whale of a psychodynamic punch.”
And also Ron Grauer who wrote, “I’m working on a small book on being an artist and in it I mention the feeling of artistic pride. When one realizes that our relationship to the clan of great artists, before, during and after our brief period, includes us, our names, though we may never approach their greatness, it is a profound experience… like tears on my whiskers looking at Lenkiewicz’s work.”
And also M Frances Stillwell of Corvallis, Oregon who wrote, “Wolf Kahn said at his workshop, “Draw every sky as if it were the first time you saw it.”