Summary of R.B. Kitaj
The idea that art and intellectualism should harmonize was, and remains indeed, a contentious issue within the artistic community. As an unapologetic intellectualist, and an artist who in his later career published a two volume manifesto, R. B. Kitaj tended to inflame opinions on that debate. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the period when his analytical figurativism began to coagulate, the fashion (seemingly) was for the anti-intellectual outlooks advocated by the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists. Kitaj was however learning his trade in Europe where he was drawn stylistically towards the most eminent figurative artists, namely David Hockney, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon.
Later, in the mid-1970s, Kitaj, who had been recognized for his drawing and draughtsmanship, became influenced by decorative art and the works of Edgar Degas which led Kitaj to experiment with oils and pastels. By the early 1980s he was living and working in London, producing his First Diasporist Manifesto - in which he proclaimed that the genesis (and genius) of Jewish culture and creativity is born from the 'diasporist' space the geographically dispersed Jewish people inhabit. During his later period his painting also took on a new mournful dimension as he used his brush to grieve his late wife.
- Despite an early feeling for spontaneity, surrealist automatism and the drip technique as practiced by the New York School, Kitaj was to cultivate a resolute commitment to art and intellectualism. He did not then subscribe to the Greenbergian philosophy of pure abstraction; nor indeed to the purists principle of 'art-for-art's-sake'. Rather, he espoused the idea of a radical social art that would allow for "good pictures" and "great pictures" to enrich "modest lives".
- A cornerstone of the Social Realist project was its pledge to represent the lives of the ordinary and/or oppressed subjects unambiguously. Kitaj's approach was to make his social commentary both gestural and highly personal. His figurative approach did not respect the normal rules of pictorial verisimilitude while his work's allusions and citations to historical and cultural events typically aligned with his self-referential Jewish identity.
- In 1976, Kitaj curated the 'Human Clay' exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery in which he revived interest in figurative art. The exhibition was noteworthy not least for a catalogue that featured an influential essay by Kitaj in which he coined the term 'School of London'. That definition referred to a cadre of London-based artists - amongst them Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockey, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff, and Kitaj himself - who, counter to the fashion amongst avant-gardists for minimalism and conceptualism, helped reinvigorate the critical fortunes of figurativism.
- Kitaj's worldview was encapsulated in two volumes: The First Diasporist Manifestos published in 1989 and The Second Diasporist Manifestos, A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses published in 2007 (the year of his death). The manifestos, the first of which appropriated the Commandments of Jewish Law, featured illustrations and text that might be best thought of as streams of consciousness through which Kitaj sought to "unpack the cultural secrets" of the Jewish people and to offer his thoughts on "HOW TO DO A JEWISH ART" (sic). He went about this task by producing a series of images and proposals on contemporary art and art criticism and, in the second volume, offered further observations and suggestions for all artists working in exile. For advocates of Kitaj, his manifestos were important because together they presented a blueprint that allowed for, in the artist's own words, "a commonality (for painting) in dispersion which has mainly been seen before only in fixed places''.
Important Art by R.B. Kitaj
One finds in this early work the features that were to characterize Kitaj's lifelong preoccupation with the human experience and history; what one might be inclined to call a figurative-intellectualism. The title Erasmus Variations (or Desiderius Erasmus) refers by name to the Dutch scholar (Erasmus) whose absent-minded sketches, or doodles, were (re)discovered by Kitaj while visiting Oxford. Kitaj had recognized the sketches as a precursor of the automatic drawing technique that was to become a linchpin of Surrealism and one can easily recognize this automatic technique in this painting. However, Kitaj also pays homage here to another Dutchman, Willem de Kooning, who he grew to admire while staying in New York; as Kitaj put it: "de Kooning's surreal-automatic 'Women' were my favorite action paintings of the School of New York [...] and so I adapted something of that mode here; Double Dutch (Erasmus and De Kooning, both of Rotterdam)". Indeed, though de Kooning is grouped with the leading Abstract Expressionists, his paintings appealed to Kitaj because his work retained a commitment to figuration.
We find the culmination of the 'Dutch effects' in the way that Kitaj's canvas is roughly divided into nine squares in a three-by-three grid. Each grid has the rough outline of a face, save the square at the center with two faces, and the lower left square which features a bouquet of flowers. The gestural spirit of artistic freedom is revealed in the way Kitaj's vibrant color contrasts bleed across the edges of their respective boxes, in the expressive drips and smears of paint, and in the dramatic sweep of Kitaj's brushstrokes.
Oil paint, ink, graphite and paper on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg
Created while Kitaj was still a student in England, 'The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg' is characteristic of the artist's lifelong concern with the theme of human experience and injustice, typically as it related to Jewish history. Indeed, though he considered the painting to be largely unsuccessful, Kitaj acknowledged in 1980 that "at least some of the terms of its genesis, terms which really interested me" were still in evidence some "20 years later".
As its title suggests, his collage was inspired, in part at least, by the story of Rosa Luxemburg, a Russian-Polish Jew, and founder of the anti-bourgeois Spartacus League, who was assassinated in Germany in 1919 for her revolutionary socialist politics. However, while Kitaj described this "artless painting" - when compared to vigorous color schemes he employed in paintings dating from the same period, one is immediately struck by a toneless desolation perfectly fitting, perhaps, for the grey subject matter - as his "first political picture" that was not because he specifically "identified with [Luxemburg's] revolution (or its failure)". What Kitaj called his "other, oblique reasons" related to the personal narratives of persecution as experienced by his Jewish grandmothers which had effectively brought about their flight from Europe to America. Notwithstanding Kitaj's dour color palette, formally, the image shows elements that would characterize his work throughout his career. We see for instance painted and drawn figures that take their place alongside abstract shapes and found images including the statue in the upper right and the obelisk in the lower left. Meanwhile, the collage's allusions to political history, revealed in written text telling of Luxemburg's fate, is pasted to the top right of the frame.
Oil paint, ink, graphite and paper on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Marlborough (Mark Rothko)
While Kitaj is best known for his paintings, he was also recognized for the breadth and quality of his drawings and prints. The most widely distributed of these was In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, a series of 50 prints featuring covers for books selected by Kitaj. For these prints, he chose books that ranged in subject from history, to mythology, to the one pictured above for his friend, Mark Rothko. As a whole, Kitaj's portfolio elucidates the breadth of the artistic interests and motivations. Art critic Catherine Bindman of Art in Print wrote that the prints showed "his predilection...for digressive exegesis, the key to both Kitaj's ambition and the critical rage that greeted it". The screenprints speak to the artist's mastery of the graphic medium, with the covers reproduced through a veracity of both color and texture. This body of work helped consolidate Kitaj's place in art history as a painter and also as a talented draughtsman and printmaker.
Screenprint - Museum of Modern Art, New York
If Not, Not
One of Kitaj's most well-known and gripping artworks, If Not, Not is a visually and conceptually multifaceted piece that the art critic Michael Glover described as "a seductive visual object [...] replete with much troubling and morally uncertain subject matter". On this occasion, Kitaj did not incorporate written text, though the painting was in fact inspired by T.S. Eliot's most celebrated poem 'The Waste Land' in which Eliot had called upon an array of cultural references to conjure a mental image of a modern world in ruin. Kitaj's intuitive take on the waste land theme is in keeping with his preoccupation with Jewish identity and history with the waste land narrative unfolding in the shadow of a Nazi death camp (Auschwitz) which sits in the top left hand of the frame. The scattered books, blackened trees and orange haze combine to create a chaotic landscape with Kitaj using a foreshortened picture plane to present the spectator with an image of an almost wraith-like dystopia.
In addition to Kitaj's almost kaleidoscopic visual treatments, the conceptual elements in his paintings can also provide specific 'intertextual' threads through which one can enter the work. In the lower left corner, for instance, the male figure is Eliot, just above him in the river is a bust of Henri Matisse, while the woman trying to cradle Eliot is represented in a style that recalls perhaps the Fauvist technique associated with early Matisse and Paul Gauguin. One can also find amidst the painting's striking dystopian drama an element of autobiography with the small man shown holding a baby in the centre-right of the frame is a self-portrait of the artist with his one-year-old son in his arms. Indeed, while one can read this painting as the coming together of great creative imaginations - Eliot, Matisse, Gaugin and, of course, Kitaj himself - one also suspects that, at root, Kitaj was expressing his heart felt anxieties about the sort of world he had brought young Max into.
Oil and black chalk on canvas - Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, UK
Cecil Court, London W.C.2 (The Refugees)
Cecil Court was the first important painting Kitaj completed upon returning to London after Elsi's suicide and marks something of a departure in style for Kitaj. Cecil Court was a street in London lined with second-hand bookshops and a favorite thoroughfare for London's bohemian community. The figure in the foreground is Kitaj himself, reclining on the famous Le Corbusier chair. The supporting figures are various Jewish acquaintances from Kitaj's past and present including his recently deceased stepfather, Walter, at the far right, and the antiquarian bookkeeper Ernest Seligmann seen holding flowers on the left. The composition is perhaps most notable however because it marked a departure, if not a clear break, from Kitaj's previous 'flat', or two-dimensional approach to his subject-matter. Here rather the figures are given three-dimensional perspective within the layout of the picture plane, and while the depth of field is still shortened, Cecil Court displays a feel for classical verisimilitude hitherto absent in his painting. Kitaj wrote that the composition of this piece was in fact inspired by figure placement in popular central European Theater, which he learned of through Franz Kafka and his Yiddish grandparents. Thematically, therefore, the painting is a continuation of the artist's commitment to exploring personal history within the bigger ambit of Jewish culture. Indeed, art historian Marco Livingstone called Cecil Court a "reverie on the way in which [Kitaj's] own life has been touched by that of refugees from the holocaust" and that the picture amounted to "a compendium of images rich in personal significance". Indeed, it was, above all else perhaps, Kitaj's inexorable self-examination that earned him his rightful place in the pantheon of modern portrait artists.
Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Attributed to his late period, and painted six years after the event itself, The Wedding is in effect a figurative mosaic of Kitaj's marriage to the American artist Sandra Fisher. Certain formal qualities, notably the brighter and more vibrant color palette, represent the happiness of the occasion, but also something of a shift in tone for Kitaj that would repeat itself more than once in his mature period. The more personal subject matter has replaced allusions to Jewish history and this emphasis on his personal life experiences would also be much more characteristic of his mature period.
The Wedding features Kitaj, Fisher and his three children (though Kitaj and Fisher's son, Max, was not born until after the wedding itself) who mingle with luminaries of the School of London - his extended family of artists - namely David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff. Kitaj claimed that he worked on this painting for longer than any of his other works, and said of the process: "I never learned how to finish it even though painter friends, including most of those in the picture, gave me good advice about it which I took up and changed things all the time. In the end, instead of finishing it, I finished with it and gave it away to a deserving old friend".
Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Los Angeles No. 17
Los Angeles No. 17 is one of a series of paintings Kitaj presented in an exhibition at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, California. The title of the series alludes to both the place where he was first introduced to Sandra Fisher (by Hockney) and to the city which he now called home. As a series, the works represented the prolongation of his somewhat morose obsession with the so-called 'Tate War' of 1994. Kitaj continued to blame those critics who had lambasted his Tate retrospective for Fisher's death and his work forward of the mid-nineties would often focus on these two related events. Given that the topic was so personal for the artist, the mature works signify something of a divergence from the historical Jewish intellectualism that had all but dominated the earlier phases of his career. No. 17 shows Kitaj (on the left) crying as he shares a kiss with his wife. In contrast to a frame in which a saturated color palette dominates, Fisher is shadowed in black with the effect that she is separated from the otherwise vivid composition while the black line that comes between them is a simple but moving metaphor for the boundary that divides the living and the dead and reveals a fearless artist prepared to express himself at his most raw and vulnerable. For those spectators who had learned something of Kitaj's biography, the image carries the theme of loss and longing, and on a more meditative level, the painting can be seen, not so much as catharsis, but rather as a means by which Kitaj would continue to communicate with the woman he loved. Indeed, Kitaj said of the piece: "Sandra and I became lovers again, after her death, in my old age in Los Angeles, The Angels. I could make love to my angel with my paintbrush, fondle her again, caress her contours". It is of some poignancy then that this was the last series the artist, diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2005, would produce before his suicide in 2007.
Oil paint on canvas - Private Collection
Biography of R.B. Kitaj
Ronald Brooks was born to a Hungarian father and Russian-Jewish mother in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932. Kitaj's biological father, Sigmund Benway, and his mother, Jeanne Brooks, separated shortly after their son's birth. Ronald's mother brought her son up on her own during his formative years, earning her living as a steel mill worker and as a teacher, before marrying the Austrian research chemist Walter Kitaj (pronounced "key-tie") - who, like Brooks was an émigré and a secular Jew - in 1941. Kitaj's interest in art was kindled at the Cleveland Museum of Art where he took art classes in addition to his high school education. On leaving high school in 1949, Kitaj 'ran away to sea' joining the crew of the SS Corona, a Norwegian freighter. He worked as a merchant seaman for some five years; his travels taking him as far afield as Cuba, Latin America, and Europe.
Education and Training
During periods of shore leave, Kitaj was able to pursue his interest in painting and drawing by attending courses at the Cooper Union in New York in 1950 and in 1952, and at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna in 1951. It was in Vienna however, where he learned of the likes of Fritz Wotruba and Albert Paris Gütersloh, that Kitaj's interest in European culture and intellectual life was aroused. Kitaj married his first wife, Elsi Roessler in New York in 1953 before serving two years in the U.S. Army between 1956-58 where his job involved drawing pictures of Russian tanks for war games. On his return, he and Elsi settled in England, they would have a son, Lem, in 1959, and adopt a daughter, Dominie, in 1964.
With the financial support of the US government's G. I. Bill (the Bill offered stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools) Kitaj was able to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. While there, he studied under art historian Edgar Wind, who directed Kitaj towards the Warburg Institute where he learned about the important role history and antiquity could play in interdisciplinary research. It is not surprising then that pronounced historical references became a hallmark of Kitaj's work. Kitaj completed his education the Royal College of Art in London, and while there he met David Hockney, an artist with whom he formed a binding and lifelong friendship.
Kitaj's first solo show, Pictures with Commentary/Pictures Without Commentary was held in 1963 at Marlborough Gallery in London. It was followed two years later with a US exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York. Kitaj's career was then in the ascendancy when in 1969 his wife, Elsi Roessler, committed suicide; a personal tragedy that was thought to have been brought on by the trauma of an earlier stillbirth though Kitaj was known to be a serial adulterer. Indeed, in his memoirs (published posthumously) Kitaj recalled how he would disappear for weeks at a time with numerous girlfriends and was in his words spending "perfect days and nights whoring" in the Barcelona dockyards when Elsi took her own life.
Following his wife's suicide, Kitaj returned to the United States where he took up a teaching position at UCLA. It was Hockney, himself now settled in LA, who introduced his friend to Sandra Fisher, an American artist who would later become Kitaj's second wife. Though he was to continue teaching until the early 1980s (when he settled once more in Europe), it was Fisher who persuaded Kitaj to return to painting. In the early-to-mid 1970s Conceptualism and Minimalism were the dominant art movements in the United States. Kitaj was not swayed by what was fashionable however and he persevered in earnest with his figurative work, with many of his pieces even bearing academic annotations. The paintings from this time proved to be some of his most difficult and experimental and they divided critical opinion.
In 1982 Kitaj and Fisher moved to Paris where, within a period of two years, they had married and had a son. The couple moved to London in 1984 where Kitaj continued to work, producing his First Diasporist Manifesto in 1989. The first major retrospective of his work took place at the Tate in 1994 and it was to prove a turning point in his life. Though a commercial success, the exhibition was roundly condemned by art critics who accused the artist of being a 'pseudo intellectual'. Indeed, writing in the London Evening Standard the notorious critic Brian Sewell described Kitaj as "a vain painter" who was "unworthy of [even] a footnote in the history of figurative art". Kitaj's friends and colleagues signed a public letter of support for the artist (though Kitaj thought this was a bad idea), but amidst the furore, his wife Fisher, aged just 47, and having been instrumental in curating the exhibition, passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Kitaj believed that the fallout from the Tate retrospective had put terrible stress on her and he blamed her death on the vitriolic critics ("They aimed at me and they got Sandra instead" he said).
Only a year later, however, Kitaj won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale. Notwithstanding what was an almost immediate revival in his fortunes, Kitaj decided to move back to Los Angeles in 1997 with his son, Max: "When Sandra died under enemy fire, London also died for me" he declared. In the final ten years of his life Kitaj's often used art to memorialize Sandra and to point an accusing finger at those he blamed for her death. Writing occupied more of his time too and his Second Diasporist Manifesto, in which Kitaj extended the aims of the first book by looking beyond the Jewish question and to ponder the diasporist experience as it touched (or might touch) all artists in exile, was published in 2007. Kitaj took his own life in the same year following a two-year battle with Parkinson's Disease, a condition that had robbed him of his ability to paint. (An unfinished memoir, Confessions of An Old Jewish Painter, was found in his effects and was published posthumously.)
The Legacy of R.B. Kitaj
During a period in the 1970s and 1980s when Conceptual and Minimalist art represented the new avant-garde, Kitaj remained steadfast in his commitment to figurativism: "Don't listen to the fools who say that pictures of people can be of no consequence, or that painting is dead. There is much to be done" he proclaimed. Given his preoccupations with his connection to the Jewish religion and people, his loyalty towards his fellow-travellers in The London School, his love for his second wife and the anger he felt towards the critics who he held responsible for her premature death, one can observe that Kitaj was an artist who made no attempt to separate his personal life from his art.
Kitaj was resistant to the possibility that his art might be misconstrued and this often lead him to annotate and/or footnote his images. That practice however did not endear him to those critics nurtured on the principle that fine art should be allowed to 'speak for itself'. Yet, despite a prickly relationship with a critical establishment (that believed that it was its responsibility to explain art) Kitaj received several significant honors in his lifetime.
Kitaj's legacy was further enhanced through his close associations and friendships with the leading figurative painters of his, or indeed any, generation. David Hockney stated that Kitaj had been "a great influence" on him personally and "a great influence stylistically on a lot of people"; Frank Bowling acknowledging his creative debt to Kitaj by even naming one of his paintings in his honor. One must not overlook his pastel and charcoal sketches either, a number of which helped illustrate his Diasporist Manifestos. Some commentators thought in fact that this was the artist's greatest strength, amongst them the renowned art critic Robert Hughes, who once declared that 'Kitaj can draw better than any man alive'.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on R.B. Kitaj
- R.B. Kitaj: A RetrospectiveBy Richard Morphet, Richard Wollheim
- Kitaj (4th Edition)By Marco Livingstone
- R.B. Kitaj: ObsessionsOur PickBy Tracy Bartley, Inka Bertz, Edward Chaney, Roman Deppner