18 December 2007

R. B. Kitaj 1935-2007

Every so often one hears about the death of another of the 'great souls' as I like to think of them, and the day discolours a little, with an odd sense of generalised grief for someone you never met. I felt this strongly a couple of weeks ago when I heard of the death of Ronald Kitaj, surely one of the greatest artists of the late century, even if most have never heard of him.

Kitaj was a 'literary' artist, if I can use the term that his friend Francis Bacon regarded as the worst insult that could be hurled at a painter. Bacon meant that kind of art which was reducible to the written word, or which didn't aspire to anything beyond a description of itself. He put much self-consciously postmodern art in this category.

I use the word to mean that Kitaj's painting had a unusually intimate relationship with the written word, but also that it frequently aspired to intellectual significance in a kind of discursive continuum that might include written texts. He was a thinker, with the thinking frequently embodied as art. Examples might be the long series of works featuring the "cafeist" Joe Singer, a character Kitaj made up to embody the notion of the wandering Jew, after Auschwitz, a picture of anxiety.


This is the first of that series, 'The Jew, Etc.' (1976). Joe Singer is Kitaj's image of compromised survival. The Jew in a train compartment visualizes the physical and psychological restriction of the Diaspora. The cramped composition presses in on the man who also physically holds himself in. A hearing aid heightens the isolation. Being on the move, travelling on a train, is Kitaj's metaphor for the state of restlessness Jews are heirs to. The only safe place to escape is the world of thought.

This mirrors Kitaj's own situation, since he was American by birth and a wanderer in his youth (as he might have put it), serving as a merchant sailor and in the US Army before settling in England. Before his death, he returned to America. I think of him as a man in that tradition of displaced Americans, a man's man like Hemingway and a compulsive builder of structures like Eliot.

His extensive writing on the situation of the Jewish artist, not to mention the works themselves, are a self conscious attempt to engage with the tradition of Jewish thought and to take a place in it.

I've seen people wince at this title ['The Jew, Etc.']; sophisticated art people, who think it's better not to use the word Jew. Kafka, my greatest Jewish artist, never utters the word once in his work, so I thought I would. This name-sickness, which many Jews will recognize and understand in different ways, is so touching to me, that I've also given my Jew a secret name: Joe Singer. Now it's not secret anymore.

His writings were an increasingly important aid to this enterprise and they had a fascinating, often independent relationship to the paintings themselves. Sometimes, they amounted to a commentary on them, an exegesis of their themes, sometimes even a contradiction of them.

An example is a work called 'Two Brothers' (1987), that appeared accompanied by a text of subtle literary ambition.


Kitaj wrote a text to accompany the image. He begins with an epigraph from Camus:

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to re-read. His endings, or his absence of endings, suggest explanations which, however, are not revealed in clear language but, before they seem justified, require that the story be re-read from another point of view. Sometimes there is a double possibility of interpretation, whence appears the necessity of two readings. This is what the author wanted.

I'm intrigued by the implicitly Talmudic nature of the request: Before you look at the painting, it implies, read the text. Before you read the text, read this bit of Camus. Before you get into this Camus, refer to Kafka. But before you come back to the text, you must re-read Kafka! The meaning, he warns us, is not revealed in "clear language" (like the language he is using), but must be read from other points of view - that is, from the stand point that what we are reading is never the final word: "there is a double possibility of interpretation". "This is what the author wanted", Camus (and Kitaj) tell us. We're entitled to ask: which author, since we're already in a room full of authors?

Got that? Right, on we go:

For many years, this painting was called ‘Bub and Sis’. It depicted a lesbian couple and was inspired by a picture story about Times Square, which I’ve kept from the old Life magazine. Then I painted it over in black.

The new picture is about two brothers I got to know almost 30 years ago. I was a student at the Royal College of Art and I used to lunch now and then at a cheap Polish restaurant at South Kensington called Dacquise. It’s still there and still cheap. One day I sketched two men at a nearby table speaking Polish to each other. They noticed me and after a while, as they were leaving, one of them came to my table and asked if I would show him my sketch, which I did. He said he loved art and gave me his card which said ‘Count Martinus a Grudna Grudzinski’ and under that: ‘Fine Art Consultant’. They were quite old brothers, remnants of Ander’s army, who lived (and died) a few doors from the restaurant. To make a long story short, the Count appeared at my degree show and bought a life drawing. I visited them irregularly in their large dark flat. The Count lovingly kept a picture collection including Sickert, Corinth, Menzel, Polish painters I didn’t know and and unknown artists like myself. His brother kept small birds - he is clutching one in my painting while the Count is looking at a Matisse-like Polish painting.

Without pausing, the author (whoever that might be), double takes and simply ploughs on:

For many years, this painting was called ‘Bub and Sis’. It depicted a lesbian couple and was inspired by a picture story about Times Square, which I’ve kept from the old Life magazine. Then I painted it over in black.

The new painting is about two old brothers I knew almost 40 years ago. They lived together in the sam rooming house, in the 18th district (Wahring) of Vienna, as I did when I was a 19-year old student at the Art Academy in the Schillerplatz. The fat one was a poor painter who had a Matisse-like style as you can see in my painting. He had been a student at my very school along with Schiele, whose work he hated. Somehow, through thick and thin, he had survived as a painter. They painted and lived and kept small birds in a single large room. My landlady told me they were Nazis. I didn’t tell them I was a Jew because my landlady, Frau Hedwig Bauer, was a dear old (Gentile) friend of my grandmother and I didn’t wish to cause her trouble so I ignored the two old men. I was courting a Christian girl and my life was overflowing. The awful thing was to have to share a bathtub with the bastards.

So here we have it, a demonstration of the double interpretation. Does it make any difference to the painting? Of course it does. The image itself is ambiguous. What is happening and who are these people? Context creates meaning. Meaning is never completely free of the artist's intention, but what was his intention? To make it quite clear we are in a hall of semiotic mirrors, he tells us this painting has another painting underneath it. He doesn't tell us why he "painted it black", obliterating it - a telling phrase. We can't know if that's true, but how closely does this image parallel the one under it? Closely, it's implied, since it wasn't just any picture but a picture of two women, two figures, just like we see here. It suggests that meaning in art is malleable and contingent while the artist still works on the painting, since figures can be men, women, or whatever the artist wants to suggest.

But, but... After all that, Kitaj was a visual artist of power and daring, a magnificent draughtsman and a bold colourist of great ambition. Have a look at 'The Oak Tree' (1991). A drawing-in-paint I want to call 'supple', but also a work of surpassing strangeness. I don't know where that colour comes from, but what a powerful, memorable image.


UCLA's Centre for Jewish Studies is about to open an exhibition from 8 January: "Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R. B. Kitaj in Word and Image". This will be held in conjunction with the Skirball Cultural Centre exhibition: "R. B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory, Jewish Works from His Personal Collection".

2 comments:

immortal hand and eye said...

So this book with the lesbians, is there any 'action' ;)

Michael Leddy said...

Sean, I knew Kitaj's work only from the cover of a John Ashbery book. Thanks for bringing him into view.