"To paint oneself is to paint a picture of someone who is going to die. The same applies if one paints anybody else." R. O. Lenkiewicz (1941-2002)
collects together more than 30 self-portraits spanning the painter’s entire career.
Lenkiewicz, uniquely amongst post-war British artists, conceived of his paintings not as individual works but as related parts of ‘Projects’: large scale exhibitions of paintings on specific themes accompanied by the publication of statements by the sitters. The first, Vagrancy, exhibited in 1973, began a series of ‘social enquiries by visual means’ and included a remarkable booklet collecting together the sayings and recollections of the dossers, or ‘cowboys’, themselves and those involved in their care and management. Projects such as Mental Handicap (1976), Old Age (1979), Suicide (1980) and Death (1982) followed as Lenkiewicz continued to examine the lives of ostracized, hidden sections of the community, or isolated people in extremis, and bring them to the attention of the general public.
Each Project, of which twenty had been completed at the time of the artist’s death, formed part of The Relationship Series, a broad investigation of the human condition. The Vagrancy Project, despite its overt campaigning intentions, was also conceived as a study of ‘Melancholy, Fool Symbolism and The Dance of Death’; its characteristic palette of sombe blues, greens and greys reflect this. Many of the Projects which followed also have, as a unifying thread, the loneliness of existence and the melancholy induced by the passing of time.
In a parallel line of inquiry, Lenkiewicz also investigated the nature of personal relationships in ironically titled Projects such as Love & Romance (1976), Love & Mediocrity (1976), and Orgasm (1978). Here Lenkiewicz often adopted an allegorical pictorial style to portray human physiology in a state of crisis. The conclusions he drew from his observations remain deeply unsettling: that love was delusional in nature and led to obsessive and addictive patterns of behaviour. According to Lenkiewicz, who for many years had dealt with the pyschoses of street alcoholics and addicts on a daily basis, ‘the falling in love scenario’ was the deepest addiction of all and potentially the most harmful: ‘I often feel that in the most intense romantic scenarios, particularly as expressed in poetry or literature, there is an undertone of ruthless psychopathic expectation, a curious heartlessness. If one had genuine ‘concern’ for one’s partner then the first thing one would do is leave them.’ The fullest statement of this theme is to be found in the Projects Jealousy (1977) and The Painter With Mary: a Study of Obsessional Behaviour (1981).
In 1978, Lenkiewicz exhibited the Self-Portrait Project, an ironic look at the notion that the self-portrait (or any portrtait, for that matter) is somehow revelatory of the ‘essence’ of the sitter. ‘…the more I looked at the question of aesthetics the more I doubted whether there was any sense in the concept of self, personality, identity, individual, etc. If one had been born ten minutes earlier and a hundred yards further down the road, what would that entail for the idea of one’s self rattling like a marble inside the six walls of being? – the notion that there was some unique, specific ‘youness’ that occupied some part either of your actual corpse or its immediate vicinity …very conventional schmilosophical humbug.’ Although self-portraits had always figured in the artist’s output – ‘…you’re your own best model: you’re always going to be there, you’re not going to let yourself down, you’re going to hold still for as long as you want…’ – the 1978 Project was the painter’s fullest working through of the theme. ‘I wondered what it would be like just to paint myself; to paint what I saw in the mirror repetitively. Well, within half a sitting I became aware that all I was doing was painting a picture of a mirror; there just happened to be something there reflected in the mirror.’
Nevertheless, the collected self-portraits represent a distributed ‘project’ that allows us to witness Lenkiewicz recording the passing of time in his own life; from the open gaze of a fifteen year old in Cricklewood to the harrowing image painted shortly before his death in Plymouth at age sixty. Or, as Lenkiewicz might have preferred, they constitute a 45-year study of the mirror as still-life.