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All art is quite useless Oscar Wilde
Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz was a prolific painter, portraying the lives of people across society. He was either loved or loathed, being one of those rare individuals who would always elicit a strong opinion from people.
Lenkiewicz was born in London in 1941, his parents were Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland. During his early years, his parents set up a number of places where the elderly could stay. This led to the opening of The Hotel Shem-tov, which had room for some 60 residents, plus the Lenkiewicz family, which included Robert and his two brothers. Robert painted 70 portraits of dying people. Many of the guests at the hotel had suffered great hardships. Some were, in Lenkiewicz's words, "a little unhinged" and others were of a "life-experienced and philosophical persuasion" that would greatly influence him in his career and later life. The hotel was also where he first started to paint, with some pictures taking on the epic scale that he would later become known for.

Lenkiewicz went to St Martin's School of Art and then to the
Royal Academy schools. He then spent some years teaching in London, attracting many visitors to his studios. This resulted in the first of a series of different premises converted for the occupancy of vagrant and disturbed people. His ventures created difficulties in an area like Hampstead, where he was asked to leave by the police. He briefly taught in Cornwall where he lived in a small cottage in the late 1960’s, then later moved to Plymouth where he continued a similar lifestyle, after he was offered a large studio space on the Barbican. After some years, he had established nine separate buildings throughout the city. But he was a controversial figure who attracted constant publicity. In 1971, he painted a landmark mural in the heart of the Barbican, which remains today. Later, he faced censorship after being criticised for painting nude figures on public display.
The Lenkiewicz mural in its 1970's heyday, Plymouth.

In the 1980s, he embalmed the dead body of a tramp as part of his studies, which caused controversy and media attention.

Throughout his career, he worked intensively on a long series of projects which he termed The Relationships Series. There were 20 projects. The first, Vagrancy, was finished in 1973. At the time, a small book on the theme of Vagrancy, written by Lenkiewicz, was published parallel to the opening of the Vagrancy Exhibition in a large derelict building on The Barbican, known at that time as 'Jacob's Ladder'. The book was introduced by an essay titled: Melancholy, the 'Dance of Death' and Fool Symbolism, in relation to Vagrancy. In this essay Lenkiewicz associated contemporary Vagrancy with a tradition that predates Durer's brooding figure of 'Melancholia'. Hieronimo, in Kyd's 'Spanish Tragedy' declaims on melancholy: "There is a path upon your left hand side, that leadeth from a guilty conscience unto a forest of distrust and fear, A darksome place and dangerous to pass: There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts, whose baleful humours if you but uphold, It will conduct you to despair and death." Lenkiewicz considered the extraordinary medieval iconography that represents the 'Dance of Death'; and in particular the image of Death as 'Jester'.

He ambitiously tried to say many things – and make many observations on the subjects which fascinated him, through the many projects he undertook. Speaking in December 2001, he said: "I do not see myself as an artist. I see myself as a painter who produces sociological inquiry reports by visual means."

However, in producing paintings primarily, as he ultimately did, there is only so much one can say with mere portraits alone! I think this had its frustrations for Robert, as when one day I told him how much skill had gone into a particular painting he did which was hung in his studio. He replied by saying “people only look at the surface, they little understand the meaning behind something”. I didn’t know what I’d said wrong, but after that I could see that he always strove to express something with his work. But I know there are limits to what and how much you can expect someone to read from a painting by simply looking at a portrait of someone, hanging on a wall. If you want to say things, there are many more effective ways of doing so – writing is the most obvious, among others. Perhaps when Oscar Wilde said: “All art is quite useless”, he had a point!

Of course, I don’t think art to be completely useless – there must be more to art than mere decoration. You can tell a simple story with a painting, such as with for example; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’; a depiction of the evils of the Spanish civil war. But Picasso has never fully explained the meaning of symbolism used in that painting, highlighting that only the ‘author’ of a painting can really decide what he is, or isn’t, trying to say. Many artists (and spectators of art) may claim a piece of art to hold all manor insightful information, when this can so easily be misinterpreted by the viewer, or not even seen at all - due to the static image only showing what is on the canvas. Therein lies the weaknesses of paintings’ used as a vehicle for conveying information!

However, Lenkiewicz’s exhibition of paintings and writings on vagrancy as a whole, went a long way into provoking thought on the subject. And he pursued his ‘sociological enquiries’ with other thought-provoking exhibitions, which continued throughout his career, and attracted much curiosity in a City whose population is preoccupied with a limited outlook. The average Plymouthian is concerned mainly with a repetitive daily routine, a safe job during the week, followed by drinking on Saturday, and washing the car on Sunday, then repeating the whole routine again the following week – while hoping for absolutely no changes or interruptions to their hum-drum lives. A short-sighted existence, with no global outlook, and causing the average Plymouthian to be inward-looking, and the City to be baron of any culture, or prosperity!

Themes such as mental handicap, love, jealousy, orgasm, old age, suicide, sexual behaviour, and even observations on local education followed on from the Vagrancy project. The last project Lenkiewicz was working on was titled Addictive Behaviour and featured former Labour Party leader Michael Foot as one of his subjects. Lenkiewicz described his final work as a serious enquiry into people's obsessive behaviour and the causes of fanatical belief systems, including why people kill or die for a point of view. Much of his work also looked at death. He painted some 70 portraits of people at the end of their life and also built up Britain's rarest collection of books on the subject in his highly-regarded library. However, he maintained it was not death itself which fascinated him. In one interview he said: "Yes, I am seen as death-obsessed, but in fact I'm not. It's the anxiety about death, particularly in a city that hasn't got over Wesley or the dockyard."

Robert died in 2002. His early death was unexpected and he was still talking of needing more time to finish his work. He said in 2001: "The insignificant event of my personal extinction, no more than a blade of grass, doesn't trouble me in the slightest. But it would be inconvenient if it was in the next four years." He is alleged to have produced an estimated 10,000 works of art in his lifetime, but there is no doubt Robert Lenkiewicz made a huge contribution to Plymouth and the South West during his life, and his legacy continues.


Robert Lenkiewicz handing out
food to the homeless, Christmas 1988.


More Lenkiewicz photographs

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