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R. B. Kitaj

(1932—2007) painter and essayist


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(1932–2007)

American painter and graphic artist, active mainly in England. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and studied at the Cooper Union, New York, 1950–51, and the Academy in Vienna, 1951–2. After working as a merchant seaman and serving in the US Army in Germany he came to England on a GI scholarship, studying at the Ruskin School, Oxford, 1958–9, and the Royal College of Art, 1959–61. His wide cultural horizons gave him an influential position among his contemporaries at the RCA (they included David Hockney and Allen Jones), particularly in holding up his own preference for figuration in opposition to the prevailing abstraction. His relation to the Pop phenomenon is a complex one. Like his contemporaries, he composed most of his work of the 1960s out of second-hand imagery. The sources were, however, not usually from mass culture, but from the history of ideas, especially a blend of radical politics and iconology derived from the studies of the Warburg Institute, the London-based institution which specializes in recondite research into the classical tradition. The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960, Tate) associated the death of the German Jewish revolutionary with Kitaj's own ancestors who had been forced to leave Russia and Austria as a result of anti-Semitic persecution. His first solo exhibition in 1963, held at the Marlborough New London Gallery, cited the philosopher Karl Popper in its dedication ‘To the Open Society, with Reservations’. Like Paolozzi, he made considerable use of screenprinting to bring together images from multiple sources, as in his 1964–7 series Mahler Becomes Politics. Another group of screenprints of 1969 reproduced unchanged a series of book covers, generally of a fairly intellectual nature, as a riposte to Pop. His processes fell foul of the definitions of the original print which operated in France and four of his screenprints were banned and then segregated in the Paris Biennale des Jeunes Artistes in 1965. Kitaj's early activities, with their strong element of appropriation, tended to be overshadowed later by his role as a champion of figurative art, stressing the importance of drawing and painting from the life. In 1976 he organized an Arts Council exhibition of figurative art entitled ‘The Human Clay’, including work by Francis Bacon and David Hockney. In the catalogue, he coined the phrase School of London'. His paintings continued to abound in recondite references; his preferred choices for portrait subjects were intellectuals and academics.

After a visit to Paris in 1975 Kitaj was inspired by the example of Degas to take up pastel, which he has used for much of his subsequent work. Late 19th-century French art was a major source of inspiration, as was a preoccupation with his Jewish identity, and he said: ‘I took it into my cosmopolitan head that I should attempt to do Cézanne and Degas and Kafka over again, after Auschwitz.’ He identified strongly with the composer Mahler, ‘thrice homeless—as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world’. Kitaj's sense of Jewishness was given verbal expression in his two ‘diasporist manifestoes’, published in 1989 and 2007, in which he made a link between the situation of the Jew and all other outsiders. If not, not (1975–6, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) recalls in its composition Giorgione's Tempest, art's most powerful image of a threatened Arcadia. At the crown of a hill there is the gate of a concentration camp. There are references to T. S. Eliot's Waste Land; the poet himself, notorious for his anti-Semitism, is seen with a hearing aid in the embrace of a woman. In 1994 a retrospective exhibition of Kitaj's work at the Tate Gallery, London, received strongly negative reviews, which especially attacked him for allegedly putting the literary above the pictorial. This hostile response, which was not repeated when the exhibition was subsequently seen in Los Angeles and New York, has been accounted for by the sociologist Janet Woolf as deriving from a combination of ‘a certain anti-literary prejudice in art criticism, a lingering anti-Americanism, and a persistent (though by no means pervasive) anti-semitism’. His wife, the American artist Sandra Fisher (1947–94), died of a brain haemorrhage shortly after the exhibition ended, and Kitaj caused controversy by blaming this on his critics: ‘They tried to kill me and they got her instead.’ In 1996 he showed a painting at the Royal Academy entitled The Critic Kills and was widely accused of ‘emotional blackmail’. One commentator suggested that he should live in Italy, where critics could be ‘paid to write nice things’. However, he remained a highly respected figure in the art world and the affair seemed to have little long-term impact on the success and honours he achieved. In 1997 he settled in Los Angeles. His death was by suicide.

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Subjects: Art.


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