German painter, born in Dresden. He was born Ralf Winckler and took on his pseudonym in 1968, deriving the name from the geographer and Ice Age researcher Albrecht Penck (1858–1945), referring to his conception of art ‘as empirical science in the age of the Cold War’ (Gillen). He first decided to become a painter in 1955 but was rejected by the academies in Dresden and East Berlin. On the day before the erection of the Berlin Wall he went to visit his friend George Baselitz, who was by then living in West Berlin. His return to the East that evening marked his last opportunity to go to the West for many years. Apart from occasional inclusions in exhibitions he worked entirely as an unofficial artist, being excluded from the all-powerful Artists' Union. In spite of this, in the early 1960s he was still a supporter of the socialist system, but his approach to art was far removed from the officially sanctioned Socialist Realism. From 1961 onwards he developed the ‘stick figures’ for which he is best known, abandoning Rembrandt and Picasso as models. These figures were conceived as a way of examining values in society in a quasi-scientific manner. He was to continue working by virtue of a contract with a dealer in the West, Michael Werner, who organized his first exhibition in Cologne in 1968. In the mid-1970s he made contact with the West German painter Jörg Immendorff. After 1979 a change in the law in East Germany meant that Penck's contacts with the West, for instance collaboration with publishers, would now be illegal. In 1980 the painter Willi Sitte (see Socialist Realism), one of the leading figures in official East German art, refused to allow his paintings to be shown alongside those of Penck in an exhibition in Paris. Later, after requesting the right to leave the country, Penck was stripped of his nationality and told to leave East Germany before midnight.
He already had some reputation in the West and his arrival came at the time when Neo-Expressionist painting, spearheaded by his old friend Baselitz, was becoming highly successful in the Western art world. Penck's work tended to become associated with it in that he painted in a vigorous manner, although his preoccupations are as much with politics as individual expression. Weltbild (1961, Kunsthaus, Zurich) is a schematic representation of the aftermath of the building of the Berlin Wall, which Penck initially supported. Each side confronts the other with armaments, children are frustrated by the barrier as they can no longer meet, but an embracing couple and a figure joyously balancing a ball suggest that life is still friendlier in the East. Der Übergang (1963, Museum Ludwig, Cologne) announces a bleaker view as a man uses his outsize hands in a desperate attempt to balance himself as he crosses an abyss on a flaming bridge. Penck's own passage through the wall was commemorated in two giant paintings in black and white, West and East (1980, Tate), which contrast the artist feeling around in the dark in the East and opening the door to the West with its offers of both money and new uncertainties. In the 1980s he lived for a time in London and now works in Dublin and Düsseldorf. He has also worked as a sculptor, making totemistic figures from wood and bronze.