Karl Weschke

Artist whose colourful life distracted from his real achievement


Karl Martin Weschke, painter: born Taubenpreskeln, Germany 7 June 1925; three times married (two sons, three daughters); died Hayle, Cornwall 20 February 2005.

Karl Martin Weschke, painter: born Taubenpreskeln, Germany 7 June 1925; three times married (two sons, three daughters); died Hayle, Cornwall 20 February 2005.

The artist Karl Weschke lived for more than 40 years in an isolated house on the tip of Cape Cornwall, near Land's End. An entrenched individualist, Weschke was never part of the St Ives school of colourful abstraction, though some of its practitioners were his friends and neighbours. His art owed more to German Expressionism and to the continuing relevance of ancient myths, reinterpreted through the rugged Cornish landscape.

Weschke took pride in pitting himself against nature: not taming it, but cohabiting with it, if not always amicably. The view from his studio was over the desolate moors with their crops of bracken or gorse, to the long rollers of the Atlantic. He loved and respected the sea, both as diver and artist, and painted it in many moods.

He was a great debunker. When asked once by a student whether it was the beautiful Cornish light that had inspired him to live where he did, he snorted dismissively, "Cornish light? I've got a 60-watt light-bulb and I keep the curtains closed." He admitted to not having perhaps the sunniest of dispositions, though counted himself moody but optimistic. His was a strong personality - by turns enthusiastic, impatient, irate, mischievous, or utterly charming.

The blond boyishness of his youth transmuted in later life to a startling resemblance to Picasso. He was powerfully attracted to women, and was married three times. He was the father of four children - Benjamin, Lucas, Laura and Rachel - and, when relationships didn't work, had no hesitation in bringing the children up on his own, while still continuing to paint. (Their needs came first: painting was done at night. Hence the crack about Cornish light.) He had little patience for people who claimed it wasn't possible to have children and be an artist.

Karl Martin Weschke was born in 1925 in Taubenpreskeln, near Gera, in Germany. One of three illegitimate children by different fathers, he grew up in considerable poverty and was deposited by his mother, Elsa Emma Weschke, in a state-run children's home at the age of two. She reclaimed him when he was seven, but life was no easier sharing a bedroom with a mother who worked in a bar and brought men back for the night. Weschke later referred to his mother as a prostitute, while his father, Hermann Hanke, was a peripatetic freedom fighter and anarchist. The boy saw him only once when he was 11; Hanke perished in a concentration camp during the Second World War.

A tough street child in Weimar Germany, Weschke soon became something of a thug, though there were occasional more calming interludes pulling an ice-cream cart or working as a ball-boy at the local tennis club. Drawing was an early preoccupation, and carving. He was encouraged in this by Fritz Dix, artist brother of the more famous Otto, who lived in Gera. Weschke dreamed of becoming an ornamental blacksmith, so that he could "make roses out of metal". He left school at 14 and instead was put to work in the state insurance office, before being inducted into the Hitler Youth.

In 1942 he joined the Luftwaffe, and two years later he volunteered for the paratroops. He was taken prisoner in Holland and brought to Britain. As a prisoner of war, he suffered a nervous breakdown and partly as therapy he began to paint and sculpt again.

He was sent to Radwinter Student Camp, near Saffron Walden. There he had the good fortune to be befriended by the Quaker Bessie Midgley, who lent him studio space. He was also an extramural student of art history at St John's College, Cambridge. Gradually he became, as he put it, more civilised. He was also befriended by the writer and MP Tom Driberg, through whom he met his future first wife, Alison de Vere.

As an artist, Weschke was largely self-taught. He lasted for only one term as an art student at St Martin's in 1949, and then resolved to make his own way. Weschke lived on the fringes of London's Bohemia, taking a succession of odd jobs. After a spell planting trees for the Forestry Commission in Argyll, he worked in the factories of Wall's, Peak Frean and Tiptree, and for a time was assistant lion feeder in a circus.

In 1953 he spent six months in Spain, and he lived in Sweden from 1954 until 1955. On his return to England, he moved down to Cornwall on the advice of the artist Bryan Wynter, living first in Zennor, and then in 1960 settling on Cape Cornwall.

In 1958 Weschke held his first one-man exhibition at the New Vision Centre in London, and his work received favourable attention from the influential critic John Berger. The next year, the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought a large painting, Deposition Triptych, on the recommendation of Bryan Robertson, then Director of the Whitechapel Gallery. This was Weschke's first public purchase, and his career was launched.

He continued to exhibit regularly in group shows up and down the country, and in solo shows at the Arnolfini, Bristol (1964), Whitechapel (1974), Kettle's Yard, Cambridge (1980), and later at the Tate. In 1996-97 there were special displays of his work in the London Tate and then at Tate St Ives.

From such unpromising beginnings, it is remarkable that such a well-rounded human being could develop. Weschke was highly articulate and original; he was sure of his goals and made steady progress towards them. But he was a slow painter, prepared to give time to the long process of distilling an image. Honesty was more important to him than instant acclaim.

Animals in his pictures often stand in for humans. He was particularly good at dogs - often portraying his own Borzoi, Dankoff. Besides the elemental landscapes and the solitary, frequently embattled figures, Weschke returned again and again to an intense and tender celebration of female flesh. His colourful life sometimes distracted from his very real achievement as an artist.

Weschke eschewed the picturesque and for much of his life his palette was dominated by dark earth colours. However, his visits to Egypt in the 1990s liberated his sense of colour. As he put it: "The light did affect me. The blue was lapis-lazuli, the yellow was ochre, the colours were substances." Egypt made him feel he "had come home to my real beginning as an artist".

In 1997, Weschke survived a triple heart bypass, and continued to paint with even greater assurance and determination. The next year the first monograph on his work, Karl Weschke: portrait of a painter, written by Jeremy Lewison, was published. He was given a substantial retrospective in Gera in 2001 and he was presented with the freedom of the city.

In his adopted country he was given a select but well-chosen retrospective at the Tate St Ives (2004), and critics and public woke up to his work. His later years were further cheered by the rediscovery of a daughter by an early liaison, and marriage to his long-term companion, Petronilla Silver.

Andrew Lambirth

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