On the way into the Royal Academy of the West of England’s latest exhibition, I misread the banner over the door. ‘Robert Lenkiewicz Still Lives’, it declared. I started. But he died a few years back, at the horribly early age of 60 or so – didn’t he?
My momentary confusion is understandable given that Lenkiewicz did once fake his own death in order to publicise a forthcoming exhibition on that very topic. I know this because every summer throughout the 70s and 80s when I was down in Devon and local newscasters were pleading nightly for somebody to contact them with news, Lenkiewicz’s eccentricities were constantly on screen. Another of his more notorious acts that caused a huge stir was the post-mortem embalming of his friend and model, Edwin Mackenzie aka ‘Diogenes’, ‘for use as a human paperweight’.
Add to this the scandal of many wives, lovers and children; a propensity to surround himself with vagrants and addicts; his apparent penury (although he ended up leaving over £6,000,000); such challenging subject-matter as mental disability, suicide, old age, and sexual behaviour; and, worst of all, the fact that his art is (whisper it) figurative, and it maybe isn’t surprising that it sometimes slips under the radar.
But what a shame that this is the case. I know little about art, so approach it with the most basic of requirements: what determines whether I find a work engaging or not is whether it excites an emotional response. So whilst Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy leaves me cold and the Chapman Brothers soon pall, Lenkiewicz can exalt and humble me, charm and repel, arouse curiosity, concern and a determination to make the most of the time left to me.
Death plays a major role in the work of all the above artists, but it is Lenkiewicz’s tenderness, the humanity with which he depicts our mortality, his refusal to avert his gaze, that is so affecting. We too are made to look upon Death, not just in the form of ubiquitous memento mori (skulls and hovering intimations of figures on the edges of his canvases), but also literally in the case of Diogenes, naked but for his dignity, and as distant in time as Lindow Man or an Egyptian Mummy. I was reminded of Yossarian’s assertion in Catch-22 (the film, I think, rather than the book): ‘Well, he died. You don't get any older than that.’
Good, then, to see the old man alive and sparkling elsewhere in the exhibition, gazing out of this and that work, alone or with his fellow vagrants or the artist himself. There is a joyous defiance in so many of Lenkiewicz’s sitters – the self-possessed young Muses, lovers and offspring; the elderly who return your gaze with equanimity; the terminally sick and the disabled who dare you to glance away. It is when his subjects look askance that I feel alarm and discomfiture – the parents of disabled children, whose plight I can identify with so well; those close to death who don’t look back, who seem already to have slipped behind an invisible glass screen.
And Lenkiewicz’s own gaze fixed unwaveringly on things we might prefer not to examine closely, such as the subject matter of the diptych Still-Born Child in Kitchen. In one panel there is an almost burly-looking, purplish newborn lying in a bowl, still attached to its placenta, against a sterile and mechanical backdrop of white kitchen appliances; in the other, members of the artist’s family, including very young children, standing and sitting around while the artist avidly stuffs raw umbilical cord into his mouth, the remainder of the placenta flopping on his lap like a grotesquely swollen scrotum. I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, when I would have preferred to turn away. Is the father celebrating the birth of his dead baby? Is he celebrating its death? Given that it is part of a project, does the diptych have a wider symbolic significance, or is it just a fellatory joke?
A revelation to me was Lenkiewicz’s mastery of light. The highlights in a young woman’s hair, the fringes of another’s shawl, the satiny sheen of a coat lining all sensuously, deliciously depicted. Also, the extent to which he was in thrall to the Great Masters: work after work described as being influenced by this or that painting in the National Gallery, which Robert had haunted as a young man. I plan to go on a bit of an odyssey with him over the next few months, and also to return to the exhibition at least once more before it closes at the end of May. For all that it is about death, this is the stuff of life and living.