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 Karl Weschke  (1925 - 2005)

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Lived/Active: United Kingdom/Germany/England      Known for: abstract figure, landscape, animals and interior painting scenes

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Following is the obituary of the artist from The Sunday Times, London, February 24, 2005

KARL WESCHKE'S disturbing paintings of figures and animals in claustrophobic landscapes and interiors are strongly, if indirectly, autobiographical.  Born in 1925 in Gera, a textile town in central Germany, he lived for some 60 years in England, most of them on an isolated edge of west Cornwall battered by the elements. He never came to feel entirely British; but nor did he consider himself to be German ? in spite of an abiding, thick Thuringian accent. Weschke was as solitary and vulnerable as the people in his pictures.

Weschke was brought to England in 1945 as a prisoner of war. He was so convinced a Nazi that for some weeks he refused to believe that Germany had capitulated. His "re-education" was therefore traumatic and lengthy. After his release in 1948 he had no desire to go home.

He was always candid about his past. He willingly talked about the war, and about his feckless mother. She had three illegitimate children by different fathers. At 11 he briefly met his father, an anarchist, for the only time. After the war he discovered that he had been murdered at Auschwitz.

Abandoned at the age of 2, Weschke was sent to a home for children and geriatrics, then reclaimed by his mother five years later. His was the poor, frequently violent milieu from which Nazism and its bully boys sprang. Almost inevitably, Weschke was recruited by the Hitler Youth. He found in its disciplined ranks everything, even a kind of love, which his mother had failed to give him.  In 1942 he volunteered for parachute training in the Luftwaffe.

In England Weschke decided to become an artist, and in 1949 spent a term at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. As a painter, he nevertheless remained largely self-taught. The lack of a conventional training is evident above all in a certain deliberate clumsiness, which heightens the expressive power and authenticity of all his painting.

A friendship with the painter Bryan Winter was the immediate cause of Weschke's move to Cornwall in 1955. Winter persuaded Weschke to live in the Zennor area, where he initially rented the cottages to the east of the ancient tinners' village, between the coast road and the sea, previously occupied by D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield.

There, at what must have seemed like the end of the world, Weschke, powerfully built, short, but very attractive to women, found himself having repeatedly to explain how someone other than a Jew could possibly be a "good German". His forthright political views also lost him friends. He was once barred from his pub, the Tinner's Arms, after making a republican remark in a conversation about Barbara Hepworth's recently conferred DBE.

Weschke did not feel at home in artistic circles. He disliked the cultural and social snobbery of the St Ives School, what he called "Bloomsbury-on-Sea". He scorned what he described as the "art about art" of Ben Nicholson, and liked even less the painters of boats and crab pots. The people he most admired were writers. One was W. S Graham, who became a friend, as did John le Carré, a later resident in west Cornwall.

Bryan Winter's influence can be discerned in some of Weschke's early abstracts, and in others something of Peter Lanyon's informal, landscape-based abstraction emerges. There are also elements reminiscent of Francis Bacon, another friend, in Weschke's paintings of agitated dogs and writhing female nudes. Weschke nevertheless acquired a unique voice remarkably early.

That voice is not conventionally Cornish, and it certainly does not rehearse the tourist version of the Duchy's delights. 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.

Weschke's remote location, from 1960 on a cliff at Cape Cornwall with spectacular views, gave him the stuff of his painting. At the same time the isolation made it difficult for him to establish a reputation. Though he exhibited almost annually throughout his career, for most of it he sold little (and had to supplement his income from part-time teaching by diving for lobsters).

About 15 years ago, however, he began to establish a national, and then an international reputation. The Tate Gallery acquired a number of paintings; a monograph was published; two television documentaries were made, one German, one English.

Weschke, previously unknown in his homeland, now made a name there. In 2001 the museum in Gera organized a retrospective, and in February 2004 the Tate St Ives staged another. Later that year he was given honorary citizenship of Gera. (He had already been awarded the German Cross of Merit.)

Weschke's style changed little over the years.  There was just one major shift. It came in the 1990s when, enthused by journeys to Egypt and chiefly by the sight of the Nile and of such ancient monuments as the Karnak temple, his palette became a little lighter and more diverse.  Weschke's Egyptian paintings have as little to do with the tourist's experience of the place as does his Cornish work, though they are about similar experiences: of loneliness, of exclusion, of threat and menace, and of an inability to comprehend the mystery of human existence. It is this atmosphere of entrapment and alienation that locates Weschke's work in the mainstream of modern art.

Karl Weschke was married three times. He is survived by his third wife, his two sons and three daughters.

Karl Weschke, painter, was born on June 7, 1925. He died on February 20, 2005, aged 79.


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