Edward Dutkiewicz: Artist of stoic courage

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The Independent Online

Edward Dutkiewicz, artist: born Tamworth, Staffordshire 1 April 1961; died London 9 December 2007.

Serious illness transforms our view of the world as much as of ourselves. Suffering from Alzheimer's, that fine, unsung painter Bill Utermohlen harrowingly charted his own mental disintegration in a series of spare and haunting self-portraits. His much younger contemporary Edward Dutkiewicz expressed his decades-long physical battle with multiple sclerosis more joyously, his sombre, thickly painted earlier work giving way, as his hands and body (but never his mind or humour) weakened, to playful abstract sculpture and line drawings as inimitable and original as the man himself.

By stoicism and courage, even when bedridden and unable to move, Dutkiewicz kept everyone laughing. No one who was ill for so long was ever as cheerful or uncomplaining, or, for that matter, as imaginative and creative.

When we met in the mid-Nineties, introduced by the East End deli owner Barry Rogg, Ed Dutkiewicz was already hardly able to walk. Thickset, his head shaved, he looked, in his wheelchair, like the survivor of some terrible battle on the football terraces, but, that is, for his radiant smile and bright red braces.

He claimed, like many before him, that my recently dead father, the art dealer Eric Estorick, had wanted to purchase his paintings, and I had no reason to doubt him. Living on an East End estate now thankfully demolished, where he was regularly robbed by people pretending to care for him, he clearly needed to escape. Through a friend he soon moved into a large, airy studio in a converted chapel in north London where, surrounded by his library of poetry and music, he drew until he could no longer hold a pencil, doted on by an assortment of devoted women of all ages.

By the time he was 40, his exhibiting days were pretty much behind him, though commissions still came his way. Courtesy of the architect Piers Gough, for instance, one of his inimitable rigid men made of polished steel stands guard like some primitive god at Camden Lock; a more sensual, abstract female, supposedly a portrait of a beautiful young friend, undulates seductively in the garden at the Estorick Collection in Islington; through the initiative of Susan Loppert and her much-lamented arts project at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, patients had their spirits raised by Dutkiewicz's art.

Most artists need recognition rather than fame, to feel, if not understood, that their work is well-regarded. In that sense Dutkiewicz was the most secure of men: he knew what he liked and he knew what was good and much as he appreciated appreciation, he had little use for it.

The son of wartime Polish immigrants, whose portraits he painted with extraordinary delicacy and feeling, he was born, in 1961, and grew up in Staffordshire. Entirely self-taught, as a young man he won local arts prizes and ran workshops for children and young offenders. Between 1986 and 1994 he produced wall paintings and murals for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and had the first of two one-man shows at Flowers East.

Afterwards he exhibited in Paris, Cologne, Stockholm and San Francisco without ever becoming well known; and when, last year, his work was exhibited online, he was far more surprised by the prices being asked than by the gallery's failure to sell a single picture. Influenced but never overwhelmed (particularly by Bomberg, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso), his early, expressionist work, was traditional and recognisably "serious". His later sculptures, mainly of human figures, animals and abstract forms and made of either polished or painted steel, were apparently too light-hearted to be taken seriously, but serious they were all the same.

And if there are echoes of Alexander Calder and Matisse in his use of bright colour and abstract form, it is also of their playfulness and joy. For sure, no one who has experienced so much pain has also expressed as much fun and the pleasure of simply being alive, or, for that matter, has given so much to those around him. For them the loss of the man is greater even than that of the artist, and of how many can we say that?

Michael Estorick

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