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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Technician

£30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Energy Sales Co-ordinator

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Energy Sales Consultant

£25000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil