Published  06/11/2007

RB Kitaj

RB Kitaj

(died 27 October 2007) 

The recent death of Ron Kitaj has not been the subject of the attention that an artist of such talent and repute would normally deserve. Notably, his adoption of London as his home city early on in his career and his personal creation of what he dubbed the School of London (which was to include Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff and Michael Andrews as well as himself ) may have always rankled with the incumbent curatorial and critical powers that be in London.

One characteristic of his painting which irked some was the high degree of literary referencing, which set this most intellectually inclined of artists apart, in his art historical referencing and sourcing, from the burgeoning Pop movement which had sought to claim his talent for its eclectic content, its high colouring and manifold images of contemporary life: and had, as by his friend Eduardo Paolozzi, been rebuffed. Even at the time of the critical debacle of the 1994 Tate Gallery retrospective, Kitaj's dealer, Marlborough Fine Art, successfully ran an important and parallel show of recent work. More recently still, Kitaj participated in the exhibition 'Encounters: New Art from Old' at the National Gallery, London (2000); the same gallery put on 'Kitaj: in the aura of Cezanne and other masters' in 2004. He was hardly on the backburner. On the occasion of the former show, Richard Morphet requoted Kitaj's statement from Walter Sickert, which he had used in his catalogue introduction for the 1980 National Gallery exhibition entitled 'The Artist's Eye':

And this, gentlemen of the press, curators, critics, experts and others is the claim we painters make in regard to the Old Masters. They are ours, not yours. We have their blood in our veins. We are their heirs, executors, assignees, trustees. We are the pious sons, but henceforth it is we who are the interpreters of their wishes, with full power to set them aside and substitute their own, whenever and wherever it seems fit for us to do so. They would have wished it so.1

As the then Director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, said at the time of 'Kitaj: in the aura of Cezanne and other Masters':

From his [Cezanne's] work and in particular from the National Gallery's 'Bathers', Kitaj has forged a new language of anger and distress - and of the hope inherent in struggles unfinished. It is a language that can tackle loss and exclusion without despair.2

Kitaj's first visit to this Gallery over five decades previously had, as MacGregor explained, 'Left him enthused with the works of Duccio, Sassetta, and other early Italians. Cezanne represented a climax to a long saga of joy, delight, creative fulfilment and his own ultimate despair, grief and loss'. As Kitaj related:

My pictures seem to rouse the art rabble don't they? And cause Tate Wars and such. I guess my favourite modernist picture is still the uncouth, Cezanne-induced 'Demoiselles d'Avignon', by Picasso, painted upon Cezanne's death … in spite of my bibliomania, everyone in the School of London is more sophisticated than I am.3

As our reviewer stated, that was an exhibition, 'that is difficult to actually enjoy because the issues are so profoundly challenging. However, in terms of being able to salute the courage and determination to survive through the creative act, it is a difficult experience to forget'.4

At the time of the Tate Gallery retrospective (1994), Kitaj had experienced a sustained barrage of adverse criticism in the Press, savagely personal and apparently somewhat orchestrated. From this setback, accompanied by the death of his wife in the same year, he never truly recovered, and soon after withdrew from his beloved London to live in Los Angeles. Kitaj was described perceptively by the author and critic John Russell, in a famous section of the book Private View in 1965,5 in an article accompanied by four works chosen from that period, and by now very moving images taken by Snowdon of his wife and son setting out with him from their home in Dulwich Village, London. Russell tracked Kitaj's development at that point, from his contact with Oxford University's first Professor of Fine Art, Edgar Wind, 'His panoramic knowledge of the interaction of art and mythology was invaluable to Kitaj: a mingling of history, mythology, and anthropology was to give him the source material for some of the strangest, grandest, most enduringly memorable pictures that have been painted in this century'.6 Illustrated in the same article was the painting 'The Production of Waste', which was, as Kitaj said, 'To smell somewhat of those imperfections in the world with which professional economics is often moved to treat'. But as John Russell said, 'The "subject", in any painting by Kitaj is simply a point of departure: almost at once Kitaj himself takes over and I know of no painter now living from whom we can justifiably expect more'. This painting, 'The Production of Waste', has three figures, including an overbearing Lord Beaverbrook, posed as a transvestite. The implication is resoundingly clear. It is unquestionable that the quality and relevance of Kitaj's work, thirty years later was absolutely sustained.

One of the star works, a clear masterpiece in the 1994 Tate Gallery Retrospective, was the painting 'If Not, Not' (1975-6). acquired by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art against stiff competition, shortly after completion. This painting is bewitching. It draws upon Giorgone's 'Tempesta' plus a train journey Kitaj once took to Auschwitz (represented by the entry arch): then there is evident a sense of TS Eliot's poem The Wasteland. Dying or maimed figures lie around in the trees. Overall there seems to be an aura related to Vietnam. This remarkable painting had been selected by the architect of the British Library, the late Sir Colin St John Wilson, for facsimile translation as a much larger tapestry to hang, as it now does, in the main entry hall. Kitaj himself considered 'If Not, Not' a 'stream of unconsciousness work', so it was highly suitable for the tapestry hanging at the British Library, at the stairs to the Reading Rooms.

Wilson and his architect wife and partner MJ Long were earlier on the subject of a portrait by Kitaj now in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. This portrait, 'The Architects' shows the Wilsons in a typically Kitaj coloured domestic environment with their two young children, all standing separately as the individuals they are. The likeness of Wilson is, as all their friends and colleagues would confirm, remarkable, contained just this side of caricature. This is a fine example of Kitaj's skill in portraiture, of which there are many examples.

It was a tragic occurrence in an outstanding 20th century painter's career that led to Kitaj's abrupt departure to Los Angeles, only rarely to return. The blame is composite, but cannot directly be laid upon any quarter. Certainly, there was no victimisation of Kitaj for his Jewishness, nor for his preoccupation with unappetising aspects of recent history, although some have claimed this to have been the case. It was all about painting - a talent flying too high, like Icarus. Fortunately, numerous British institutions and private collectors have examples of his remarkable oeuvre.

Michael Spens

1. Richard Morphet. 'Using the Gallery Collection: A Rich Resource'. In Encounters: New Art from Old. London: The National Gallery, 2000, p. 28.
2. Neil MacGregor. 'Director's Foreword'. In: Anthony Rudolf, Colin Wiggins, Kitaj in the aura of Cezanne and other Masters. London: The National Gallery, 2002.
3. Ibid., RB Kitaj in conversation with Colin Wiggins, p. 15.
5. Bryan Robertson, John Russell, Lord Snowdon. Private View. London and Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1965, p. 193.
6. Ibid, p. 194.

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