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You are in: Devon > Features > Feature Articles > Controversial artist

Robert Lenkiewicz

Robert Lenkiewicz

Controversial artist

Plymouth painter Robert Lenkiewicz courted controversy, with his portraits looking at themes such as vagrancy, sexual behaviour and suicide.

Robert Lenkiewicz (1941-2002) was a man who everyone in the city of Plymouth had an opinion about.

He 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.

Born in London in 1941, Lenkiewicz's 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.

A painting by Lenkiewicz

Lenkiewicz 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 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 taught in Cornwall and then moved to Plymouth where he continued a similar lifestyle.

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.

Lenkievicz mural in 1971

The Lenkievicz mural being painted in 1971

In the 1980s, he embalmed the dead body of a tramp as part of his studies.

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.

Themes such as mental handicap, love, jealousy, orgasm, old age, suicide, sexual behaviour, and even observations on local education followed.

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.

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."

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."

Lenkiewicz died in 2002 after suffering from a serious heart complaint. 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."

There is no doubt Robert Lenkiewicz made a huge contribution to Plymouth and the South West during his life.

last updated: 30/01/2008 at 15:25
created: 30/01/2008

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