Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz (1941 – 2002) was one of England's most celebrated artists of modern times. Perennially unfashionable in high art circles, his work was nevertheless popular with the public.
He painted on a large scale, usually in themed Projects investigating hidden communities (Vagrancy 1973, Mental Handicap 1976) or difficult social issues (Suicide 1980, Death 1982). Inspired by the example of Albert Schweitzer, Lenkiewicz threw open the doors of his studios to anyone in need of a roof – down and outs, addicts, criminals and the mentally ill congregated there. These individuals were the subjects of his paintings as a young man. However, such colourful characters were not welcomed by his neighbours and he was obliged to leave London in 1964. He spent a year living in a remote cottage in Cornwall, supporting his young family by teaching, before being offered studio space on the Barbican in Plymouth. The artist's home and studios once more became a magnet for vagrants and street alcoholics, who then sat for paintings. Their numbers swelled and Lenkiewicz was forced to commandeer derelict warehouses in the city to house the 'dossers'. One of these warehouses also served as a studio and in 1973 became the exhibition space for the Vagrancy Project.
He first came to public attention when the media highlighted his giant mural man on Plymouth's Barbican in the 1970s. Another furore occurred in 1981 when he faked his own death in preparation for the forthcoming project of paintings on the theme of death (1982): "I could not know what it was like to be dead," said the artist, "but I could discover what it was like to be thought dead."
Lenkiewicz, aged 60, died of a heart attack in 2002. Despite painting 10,000 works rated of 'national importance' by the British Museum he had only £12 cash in his possession (having never opened a bank account), and owed £2 million to various creditors. Since his death examples of his best paintings have fetched ever-rising prices in London auction rooms. In his obituary of Lenkiewicz, art critic David Lee observed: "Robert's greatest gift was to show us that an artist could be genuinely concerned about social and domestic issues and attempt the difficult task of expressing this conscience through the deeply unfashionable medium of figurative painting. In that sense he was one of few serious painters of contemporary history."
Lenkiewicz investigated some of society's most persistent taboos in Projects such as Vagrancy, Mental Handicap, Jealousy, Orgasm, Suicide and Sexual Behaviour. Here, Lenkiewicz often adopted an allegorical pictorial style to portray human physiology in extremis. Lenkiewicz came to the conclusion that the kinds of sensations people felt when a lover abandoned them or when their cherished beliefs were threatened were identical in kind to the 'withdrawal symptoms' and anxieties experienced by addicts or alcoholics over their preferred narcotic. These Projects thus became an extended study in 'addictive behaviour'.
The conclusions drawn from his own observations were supported by his private library, which he viewed as a history of 'fanatical belief systems'. Lenkiewicz contended that in the absence of any good reasons for our beliefs or emotions we must always look to human physiology for an explanation of fanatical or obsessive behaviour and that it is there that we shall discover the roots of fascism – the tendency to treat another person as property. Lenkiewicz saw all his Projects (21 in all) as part of a large-scale investigation into the origins of fascism - the tendency to treat other people as property - and the roots of obsessive and fanatical behaviour.
On and off, for nearly 30 years, he worked on his great masterpiece, the Riddle Mural in the Round Room at Port Eliot house, home of the Earl of St. Germans, but died before its completion. Half of the mural, in the 40-foot-diameter (12 m) room, shows death, destruction, insanity, unrequited love, and the apocalyptic end of the world. The other half reflects love and affection, friendships, harmony, proportion and consensus. Hidden in the work are various references to family skeletons, art history and cabalistic mysteries, hence the name - the Riddle Mural.