A polite notice at the door of the main gallery of the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol warned visitors to Robert Lenkiewicz’s “Still Lives” exhibition that they were entering a room containing a dead human body.
It was in 2011 and the first time the balmy remains of Edwin Mackenzie, a vagrant turned assistant painter, otherwise known as Diogenes, had been on public display since they were discovered in a cupboard in the studio of the artist in Plymouth, following his own untimely death in 2002.
Locked in a coffin-like cabinet with solid white sides, no accidental view of the body was possible; you had to go up close and look through the clear glass cover to see what was left of this simple man who had no one to mourn at his grave, but who, as he had wished, was immortalized as an extraordinary artifact .
Perhaps if he had been dressed in his well-worn gray winter coat and cap, he would have been more recognizable. But in the wardrobe he looked more like a wax or special effects mannequin, a shriveled naked corpse, stick thin with a yellow-brown tinge to the skin, and his toenails, fingernails, white hair. , his skin wrinkles and his genitals intact.
But the bushy, salt and pepper beard of Diogenes’ sea captain seen in photographs displayed nearby and the large portrait painted on the main hall wall was gone, cut to thatch length by hospital staff just before his death, at the age of 72, in 1984.
The seams around her neck, groin and under her arms testified to the embalming process, carried out by Lenkiewicz himself. There were no characters or spirits left, but he was successfully fulfilling his final mission after being stashed for decades alongside the artist’s vast library of books on art, occultism, magic, philosophy, psychology and sexuality, and it was the first of two public exhibitions. The second was in Torbay, Devon that same year.
The Bristol show was a blow from beyond the grave for an artist who set out to defy convention and tackle taboo subjects and he would have been delighted with the controversy and discussion it would spark.
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The main exhibition space contained 70 often disturbing canvases, witnesses of the social history of the end of the 20th century. One was a study of the artist’s deceased mother with her jaw tied in bandages; apparently when he asked to paint her she told him “on my corpse”.
The local spaces of Plymouth had not accepted the offer of this first major retrospective devoted to the radical painter’s observations on the human condition, in disease, health and death. But the Academy, one of the oldest galleries in the southwest, was ready to respond to public objections, not only to the accommodation of the corpse, but also to the quality of the artist’s work that had been regularly dismissed by weight critics.
Death was always on Lenkiewicz’s mind, so much so that he faked his own disappearance in 1981 in order to experience being considered dead – as close to reality as possible. After posting an obituary in The Times, he went into hiding in Port Eliot, the stately home in South East Cornwall owned by his friend Peregrine, Lord Eliot, where he was painting a huge mural in the Round Room. But the press smelled a rat and the ruse was revealed.
At the exhibition, newspaper clippings chronicling this eccentric stunt were hung alongside poignant photographs of the tramp with whom Lenkiewicz befriended – and nicknamed after the Greek philosopher – after discovering him alive. in a large pipe discarded at a city dump.
Diogenes became a frequent subject for the prolific painter, as did the other vagabonds and street alcoholics who slept in his studios around the Plymouth Barbican. Lenkiewicz was an artist fascinated by the entire ‘business of life’, often focusing on those who are often isolated from the rest of society, whether by circumstance or disease – drug addicts, the mentally ill, families with mentally handicapped children, the elderly and the dying.
If Robert Lenkiewicz was still alive today, he would turn 80 this month. The recently published first volume artist biography celebrates this milestone in a timely manner. The book documents the formative years in detail, setting the scene for his simulated and actual deaths, sharing intimate elements of his life and work, both in his own words and those of those who knew him best.
Lenkiewicz – The Life: All Are Welcome, Volume 1 (1941-1979) by Mark D Price is published by White Lane Press. The second half of the story is expected in 2022.