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Published: 29 November 2007
Robin Hood with a paint brush

ART world pariah, social commentator, occultist and polymath – Robert Oscar Lenkiewicz (1941-2002) was a man of myriad interests and
prolific output, never scared to confront life’s uglier truths.
By his own judgment “the best bad painter he knew”, Lenkiewicz eschewed fashionable painting styles in favour of a more traditional approach, though he courted controversy with contemporary subject matters of vagrancy,
suicide, mental health and
Growing up in a Jewish hotel in West Hampstead, populated by a number of Holocaust survivors, set the tone for the artist’s unorthodox working habits.
Annie Hill-Smith, the mother of three of Lenkiewicz’s
children, is curator of the “at the edge” Lenkiewicz exhibition which begins on Thursday at the Novas Gallery, Parkway. She describes him as “a Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor”.
His studio (whether in London or, later, in Plymouth) was open to anyone in need of shelter; invariably becoming the refuge of down and outs, drug users, criminals and the mentally ill, who formed the subjects of his paintings. Their swelling
numbers forced Lenkiewicz to
commandeer derelict warehouses to house everybody.
To support his troubled
models, he began to
systematically steal and sell on rare antiquarian books from
Plymouth City Museum.
Ms Hill-Smith tells how a policeman came to the door one day. “Before the officer could speak, Robert said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you. You’ve come about the books, haven’t you?’ The officer, who had come about a completely innocent enquiry and had no idea about the books, arrested him. That was an
example of the damn fool Lenkiewicz.”
Lenkiewicz emerged from jail with the Vagrancy Project, one of many which shone a light on the lives of ostracised, hidden sections of society, combining thematically linked paintings with research notes and the
collected observations of the
He kindled outrage in 1981 when he faked his own death in preparation for another project on the theme of death. “I could not know what it was like to be dead,” he said, “but I could ­discover what it was like to be thought dead.”
His subjects might often have seemed dead to the public too, but Lenkiewicz’s work serves as a reminder that they are human, and very much alive.

* at the edge, the works of RO Lenkiewicz is at the Novas
Gallery, 68 Parkway, NW1 from
November 29-January 25.
Admission is free.
Tel: 0870 906 3200

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