A few years ago when the SMAC gallery first launched itself in Cape Town, both Max Wolpe and I were invited to the opening. When Wolpe arrived to collect me, my heart sank. I knew this would be a ritzy occasion, and he pitched up in his usual attire with a dirty white shirt billowing out of his un-ironed, deeply creased and paint bespattered jeans. ‘Max!’ I implored him. ‘This will be a smart dressy bash so won’t you please, please, make just one little, teensy weensy concession for Lloydie, and tuck your shirt in?’
‘No,’ he said vehemently with a scowl.
When I asked why, he promptly replied, ‘I’m a rebel!’ with such decisive finality it precluded any further discussion. However, he did have the grace to zip up his fly when I pointed out that it was undone.
His defiant nonconformity is manifest in his grubby wardrobe which has never received the attentions of the nymphs of the laundromats, his mane of silver hair, and his Rasputin-like beard which give him the semblance of some old Testament prophet.
Wolpe is a genuine old-fashioned Bohemian whose work has never sought to please or woo the viewer with visual blandishments. He is totally uninterested in wealth, social position and status; can’t be bothered about the sale of his work; displays a monastic devotion to his art; lives a frugal life as a vegetarian and teetotaller, and never says a nasty word about anyone.
I befriended Wolpe because of the nimbus of spirituality that enshrouds him, his harmlessness, humility and unworldliness. He also has an absence of social skills, with obsessive, but narrow, preoccupations and undue garrulousness and prolixity. Wolpe is a monologist, often fixated on his twin obsessions: art and soccer. He discusses them both incessantly and interminably. I can easily imagine him button-holing a bride as she walks down from the aisle to the altar to ask her what she thinks of Manchester United chances in some forthcoming match in full expectation of a lengthy debate. Despite this, Wolpe has found a coterie of admirers who respect his uncompromising nature and healthy contempt for power, wealth, authority, politicians and property developers.
I think the person who understands him best, and to whom he is most deeply attached, is his father, Joe Wolpe, whom he visits every day. Joe was a distinguished dealer who sold Picasso and other modern artists. Joe made the Wolpe Galley so congenial an environment that it verged on a salon. Max Wolpe grew up with art and artists, hearing the lengthy discussions Joe had with students, and collectors over a cup of excellent filter coffee (a rarity at the time).
His mid-career retrospective at the Jewish Museum reveals how this manically prolific artist works in a panoply of media: oils, aquarelles, pastels, ink, gouache, chalk, lithographs, etchings, aquatints, linocuts and woodcuts. His work is expressionist in tendency, and akin to the Ecole de Paris artists like Chaime Soutine and Marc Chagall. Wolpe channels the expressionist trope in his exaggeration and distortion of line, colour and form, elevating the subjective emotional response of the artist far above objective observation.
My favourite paintings in this particular style are his fresh, bright, sparkling watercolours of London which celebrate the pulsing vitality of the metropolis with enormous verve. Broad swipes of the brush confer a festive air upon the city the artist so adores. The broad borders of pristine white paper avoid the congestion of his oil paintings. Such works communicate immediately and provide pure visual delight as do some of the intimate, gently contemplative portraits.
By contrast, the oil paintings of London are murky, sombre in mood, and reminiscent of Leon Kossof’s brooding cityscapes.
Wolpe is a third generation Eastern European immigrant from Latvia. During the Shoah the inhabitants of the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe were wiped out and the towns and villages they inhabited rendered Judenrein. This collective wound has never healed. It still festers and suppurates and comes to the fore in unexpected ways in his paintings. When Wolpe paints London, an atavistic regression takes place, and – red busses and tube signs apart – the city closely resembles the densely crowded shtetls of mittel Europe. Often the gabled, timbered buildings appear medieval, and assume the contours of synagogues or Chanukah lamps. The light is as dark as it is in the Northern European winter permeating these cityscapes with a brooding holocaustal unease.
Wolpe’s expressionist taste for extremity expresses itself in his vignettes of wildly gesticulating at students arguing, or dancing at a hectically frenetic pace. These images teem with such dense throngs of merry-makers exuding such explosive energies that they almost erupt from the frame.
There is a crackling electricity in such charcoals and pen and ink drawings in which the gestural frenzy of Wolpe’s mark-making reaches fever pitch, and indicates a debt to the late, post-War flowering of Expressionism that occurred with the COBRA group of painters who banded together in 1947. COBRA espoused spontaneity, experiment and risk and drew inspiration from folk and naive art, childrens’ drawings and art brut. COBRA embraced an aggressiveness akin to that seen in Wolpe’s frantic scenes of revelry with their chaotic structure.
Many viewers assume such hectic distortions of scale, form and space result from faulty technique, and dismiss Wolpe as a naïve artist incapable of mastering anatomy and perspective, or achieving continuity of scale, light and space. On the contrary, he received a traditional academic training at Ruth Prowse, but he deliberately unlearned what he was taught. Wolpe consciously neglects perspective, employs flatness and frontality and crowds the picture plane with dense congregations of hyped-up figures and teeming detail. Although difficult, sometimes impossible, to decipher, his work is almost obsessively haunting in its strangeness and mystery. Such is Wolpe’s achievement: his apparent defects are paradoxically his strengths.