The blockbuster Banksy vs Bristol exhibition (the opening day of which I reviewed here), was largely the business of walking round Bristol Museum going “Yes, heh heh, very smart, but is it art, dammit, is it art?” It was striking therefore to find a Banksy-vandalised Damien Hirst (about whom the Is It Art? question is also often asked) on display next to Karl Weschke’s painting Leda and The Swan.
Queasy and inexplicably menacing; Ah, now this is art, then. Why is the myth inverted, with Leda the predator and the swan seemingly trapped in a prison-like environment? Bansky’s gags can be explained in a sentence. Weschke’s bleak paintings defy words. We can give it a go, however. An obituary in The Times describes his style thus:
Weschke’s skies can look like stainless steel, his rocks like iron, and his seas can seem murky, viscous, and ominously placid. Bathers, their backs against the rocks, appear isolated, hemmed in, and vulnerable. Corpses float face down in the dark waters or lie rigid on deserted beaches, and dogs, teeth bared, defend bloody carrion.
Karl Weschke’s biography is as interesting and unsettling as his art. Born in 1925 in Gera, Germany, he was abandoned by his mother at the age of two, sent to a home and then reclaimed by her five years later. He was just one of her three illegitimate children, all by different fathers.
Weschke found the security he craved in the shape of the Hitler Youth. He joined the Luftwaffe in 1942 and was brought to England as a prisoner-of-war in 1945. So convinced a Nazi was Weschke that for some weeks after the end of WWII he refused to believe that Germany had surrendered. His ‘re-education’ resulted in a nervous breakdown and when released in 1948 he had found painting but lost all desire to return to his homeland. He later discovered that his father, a political anarchist whom he had met only briefly at the age of 11, had been murdered at Auschwitz.
Moving to Cornwall in 1955, Weschke exhibited and flogged a few paintings here and there but was largely ignored until the1990s, when the Tate bought some of his pictures and documentaries about him were screened on British and German telly. Thus he gained a reputation late in life, and was given the freedom of Gera in 2001, just four years before his death.
Weschke bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Picasso and had no trouble attracting the ladies. He married three times and fathered five children, happy to raise them alone when relationships broke down. Supplementing his income by teaching and diving for lobsters, he devoted his day to his offspring and painted by night, having no patience for the bleeding heart argument that it was impossible to bring up children and be an artist.
Indeed, although he lived in close proximity to the St Ives School (and counted writers John le Carre and WS Graham amongst his friends), he was cynical about artistic circles, often criticising their snobbery and preciousness. Asked once whether he chose to live in Cornwall because of the beautiful light, he answered, “Cornish light? I’ve got a 60-watt light-bulb and I keep the curtains closed.”