Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: giving the works of the Old Masters a surprising new twist

'Lincoln Eagle', photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz is a recognized London-based artist known for his reconfigurations of well-known imageries from art history. He is currently exhibiting some of his works at Galerie MIRO in Prague. Radio Prague’s editor-in-chief Miroslav Krupicka attended the exhibition’s opening last week and later met up with the artist to talk about his usual style of work. He began by asking what had led him to exhibit in Prague.

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz,  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
“Well, Miro (Smolák) is a very interesting man. He was originally in socialist East Berlin acting as a gallerist and he met the very interesting gallerist Michael Haas in West Berlin and they became friends. Michael and Miro collaborated on various projects to do with Picasso and other artists from the 1920s and 1930s which were shown in MIRO gallery in Prague. Recently I’ve been showing in Berlin at Michael Haas and he suggested I do a show in the Czech Republic.”

I think most visitors at the opening of your exhibition last Wednesday were surprised to see Picasso or Bosch but then, when we looked closer, we saw that you just use figures or motives from the Old Masters works’ and play with them –you add something, arrange them in a different way…it seems that you are trying to reinvent or reinterpret the original art. Has anyone ever suggested you are stealing from the Old Masters?

“I understand your question and all the different complex ramifications of it. It is a difficult question but I will try to make some headway with answering it. Picasso himself, if we look at his work as the original artist, he is like the fountain or the source. However the fountain or the source of those ideas is also derivative of other ideas -not entirely derivative of course because there is an alchemy – a transformation – from the African to something else or the Mediterranean, the Iberian, the Spanish tradition which goes all the way through to the Mediterranean Greek with Picasso. So there is a powerful seam to other influences going through most artists’ work wherever you look. You could go to the Renaissance with Leonardo da Vinci for instance and although his work is considered to be powerfully original it is also extremely influenced by his master Andrea del Verrocchio and the Roma and Greco-Roman sculpture. So when you think about it in detail there is no point where you can frame the artist separately from history and suggest that this is the starting point. ”

'Lincoln Eagle',  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
Yes, but many artists would prefer to come up with their own subjects, with new methods and so on.

“Sure, but these methods that are seen to be their own, on closer inspection become variations, variations of other artists. And it is sometimes very clear to see this. When it is not so obvious it may be that the artist is a fox that goes back and covers his tracks. So in the case of Picasso for instance he will paint certain works based on Velasquez, Eugène Delacroix or Manet but will stamp them with his own style. But again this style is a complex concoction of African, Art Nouveau and in some cases 17th century draftsmanship. You can make art from the materials of past art. I don’t try to think about it so much as Picasso’s art in terms of him owning the material or Velasquez’ or Leonardo’s - I see it more as language that is malleable.”

How did you develop this method –how did you reach it? Was it your intention from the very start or did it develop gradually?

'Haywain Triptych',  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
“Well, it is part philosophical I suppose, you know, that one reads French philosophers and thinks about Death of the Author. I have thought quite a lot about this idea of origin, but that is not the way art is actually made. I feel that when I am creating a painting – it need not be a painting, it could be music or a form of dance – when one is trying to create something there is a sort of a wall, or a prevention, I feel, of the creative process if one attempts to place oneself in the mix as a unique ingredient. If one instead looks at the natural evolution of how art is made it can give the impression that it comes from nowhere. Sometimes it gives that impression. If you look at the way prehistoric man creates in Lascaux or Altamira they usually use a form of resistance. Rather than a traditional blank canvass or a witness, nothingness where the eureka moment occurs they have a form of resistance where their meaning emerges from the shadows or the architecture of the cave, the natural architecture of the cave and a mammoth or a wild animal will appear and they will find it and trace what they have found rather than what they have created.”

Why did you choose in particular Picasso or Bosch or Da Vinci because these are the masters that you refer to –why did you not pick up Goya or Dali? Is it because you like them?

'Drink Me',  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
“Yes, I like them very much, but this isn’t necessarily a good reason to choose the works as an artist. I try to use imagery that is universally known, iconically understood and generally perceived as something that has been entirely finished in such a way that it is unapproachable, as if these works are solidly placed in history and can never be shifted in terms of their perspective. They remain in timeless vitrines – a sort of capsule of almost God-like aura, such as the Mona Lisa or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. For one to approach these works again, not just in terms of a mediocre mash-up or as we use the post-modern term “playfulness”, but to approach them as material that can transform them into something that will shift their meaning in a very profound and interesting way –that is seen to be hopeless. It is seen as trying to climb a glass mountain that you will slide down because you have no grip on it –simply because they are such great masterpieces. But that is what makes them interesting to me –is it possible to unlock them, to open them in a fascinating way?”

I understand it is your first time in Prague. What are your impressions of the city?

'Oath',  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
“Well, I’m interested in 16th century Prague mainly, the times of Rudolf. I have been fascinated for some time by the great imagination that he had, the amount of books that he read. Despite the fact that Philip of Spain asked him only to read the Bible, he read many interesting secret texts and books and I am not sure actually that he was far from being an atheist towards the end and a threat to the Catholic Church. So I find that interesting. You feel Tyco Brahe and Kapler’s presence and John Dee -that is obviously fascinating when I am walking down the winding streets thinking about the 16th century this is something I like.”

Could your impressions of this city inspire you in your work?

'Snow White',  photo: archive of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
“I suppose in some ways it is a psycho-geographical experience. I was aware that Rudolf took great pains for the Dürer altarpiece of the Madonna of the Rosary to be taken from Nuremburg to Prague at great expense and when I saw this yesterday I was surprised because I am used to seeing the museums in London or the US where the works are presented in a certain way and the presentation here is very different, the lighting is very different on these masterpieces. Also I was shocked at the age damage to the panel, which is quite sad. So, yes I spent a lot of time looking at the Bronzino and the Dürer in your gallery and in terms of the influence you mentioned and the psycho-geographic quality I mentioned it is something to do with the smog and the blackness on all of your statues here. Some of the statues are technically interesting, some are very bad and some are quite fascinating. One of the things I’ve noticed about the sculptures, they tend to be elongated and the figures clamber upwards almost like your spires and there is an El Greco elongation in most of these statues that are covered in black soot. So combined with Kafka and other things there is an odd atmosphere to the place.”

The exhibition of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz’s works at MIRO gallery will run until August 31st.

Author: Miroslav Krupička
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