R.B. Kitaj and the Art of Memory

A Review by Gina Maranto

Although the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., staged a retrospective for the painter R.B. Kitaj in 1981, he has not enjoyed widespread attention in the United States until recently, when a show spanning his career arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum from the Tate Gallery in London (the exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February 1995). That Kitaj (pronounced ki-TAH), a Cleveland native who has lived in England since 1957, has been so little celebrated in his home country shows how parochial the art scene in America really is. As the retrospective clearly demonstrates, he ranks among the towering talents of his age. Combining an exalted facility for draftsmanship--for drawing, rendering, and composing--an insatiable intellect, and a dogged engagement with history, Kitaj packs a purely affective power matched by few other artists of the late 20th century.

"Baseball", 1983-84
( 434 x 432 / 49 k / jpeg )

A great deal of post-World War II painting has asked not only What is art? but also What is the purpose of art? Kitaj, however, has wasted little time with such categorical and solipsistic inquiries because he knows what art's principal purpose is: to make us aware of the historical reality of our situation, to chain us to the world's body, as it were. His work links present with past through an astonishing array of references to other paintings (those by Motherwell, Van Gogh, Giorgione, Michelangelo, Cezanne, Goya, Bacon, and Degas, among others); to literature and philosophy (Kafka, the 13th-century mystic Ramon Lull, Erasmus, Nietzsche); to notable events (the Holocaust, the assassination of John Kennedy, the rise of Fascism); to landscapes (from London to the shores of Lake Erie to Catalonia to the Greek port city of Piraeus). These are not trivial connections, forged for the sake of an empty traditionalism or in the service of a conservative bias; rather, they enable us to know who we are in the here and now, both as individuals and as members of a greater (political) whole.

"The Autumn of Central Paris", 1972-73
( 417 x 418 / 31 k / jpeg )

In one of the explanatory texts that accompany many of the 115 pieces in the exhibition (texts which drew the ire of not a few British critics, who seemed to feel that for an artist to discuss his own efforts was tantamount to sacrilege), Kitaj writes: "It is, perhaps, an original concept, to treat one's art as something which not only replaces the inertia of despair, which may be common enough, but to press art into a fiction which sustains an undying love." Kitaj is here referring specifically to the subject of his painting "The Sculptor," which portrays a man who has begun, in the aftermath of his wife's death, "a larger than life sculpture [of her] in order to recall, if not relive, their marriage."

But this particular sculptor's "undying love" also is emblematic of Kitaj's own love for the world. His "fictions" on canvas and paper arise out of an insatiable ardor for the corporeal--for skin and bones, for faces, for contact of body with body. Kitaj's is a supremely tactile art. At times, as in the pastel drawing "Marynka Pregnant II" (1981), he has marked the paper so heavily it is almost worn through. At other times, his touch is feather light: In the same drawing, the merest squiggles become veining that renders translucent the skin of the model's swollen breasts.

"If Not, Not", 1975-76
( 432 x 423 / 35 k / jpeg )

Like the painter's "favourite anti-Semite," the poet Ezra Pound, stricken by pale visages in a station of the Metro, Kitaj is arrested by the sheer physicality of the world. His works are the afterimages of the awful (and awe-provoking) perception that the Word has been made flesh. Awful, because in the flesh, rather than in Goya's sleep of reason, Kitaj finds monsters. For him, a Jew come late to a contemplation of the meaning of his Jewishness, the Holocaust represents the major event of European history in this century. And in grappling with this legacy of violence, Kitaj asserts that the Holocaust, like so many other tragedies throughout history, was enacted not by nations and armies but by individuals who bear responsibility for their acts. Kitaj sees their motives as often charged with a cruel sexuality.

One of the most moving works in the show, "Self-Portrait as a Woman" (1984), depicts, from behind in three-quarter view, a naked woman who bears Kitaj's face. The explanatory text reveals that the woman is Hedwig Bacher, an Austrian who during World War II slept with a Jew. Found out by Nazis, she was stripped of her clothes and forced to march through a Vienna suburb wearing only a placard. By replacing Bacher's face with his own, Kitaj literally puts himself in her place, making it apparent that the act of empathy in some measure involves the assumption of another's physicality. Insofar, then, as a painting evokes in us an empathic response for the figures within it, it becomes a profound, intellectual form of intercourse.

Kitaj is distinctly modern in the ways he applies paint--in some images thinning it to little more than a wash, in others daubing it over a ground with expressionistic fervor. He also declares his modernity in his ready borrowings from other artists (Pound and T.S. Eliot were major early influences, and many paintings from Kitaj's days as a student at the Royal College of Art in London include collaged elements, a sort of visual version of Eliot's verbal pastiches). But Kitaj also unavoidably brings to mind the Old Masters in his choice of subjects and the monumentality of his compositions, which, like the sweeping historical paintings of, say, Gericault or Poussin, make of the canvas an illusionary stage.

"Smyrna Greek (Nikos)", 1976-77
( 145 x 480 / 10 k / jpeg )

Kitaj's people are almost always pictured at a critical juncture in a drama--as they steal a kiss, carry out an execution, commit a murder, die, dance, dispute--and our having caught them in flagrante, as it were, serves to qualify their "other" lives outside the frame of the picture. Even when appearing singly, Kitaj's figures are never really alone. Like any habitual cafe-goer, like that boulevardier and flaneur he so frequently quotes and portrays, the essayist Walter Benjamin, Kitaj sees that there is, finally, no inside and outside, no private and public, only an indissoluble continuum. In this sense, Kitaj's paintings imply a final judgment: he seems (without himself engaging in condemnation of others) to remind us that all our acts are written in the book of life, there to be read by eyes apart from our own.

Kitaj is aware that a Jew who paints figures has crossed a proscribed line, has violated a rule against making graven images. He even dares to contemplate painting God, a transgression of Hebraic law, although not of Christian (thus, for encouragement in this exercise, he turns to William Blake and various Italian painters). Perhaps as a kind of compensation for such defiance, Kitaj also spends a good deal of time concentrating on Cabbalism, the mystical study of the Hebraic scriptures which emerged among Jews in Spain in the 1300s. The Cabbalist employs the Hebrew alphabet as a lens through which to glimpse the Names of God, a means of piercing the veil of the sacred. Kitaj is especially concerned with a variation on Cabbalism developed by the Spanish Mystc Ramon Lull, whose aim was to categorize, and thereby comprehend, the entire cosmos.

"Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)", 1983-84
( 443 x 443 / 56 k / jpeg )

In this light, Kitaj's almost compulsive mining of literature and art history for images and inspiration makes even more sense: not only is he proclaiming himself a part of the tradition of Pound and Eliot, he is engaging in a sort of mystical quest for meaning in a century that has at times seemed more fully in thrall to the forces of death and annihilation than to those of life and creation.

While Kitaj's former friend and neighbor, the painter Francis Bacon (now dead), actively mirrored the century's tendency toward senseless violence in the twisted, smeared, and flayed flesh of his figures, Kitaj, rather, has endeavored to refract his times. Like the traveler gazing out the train window in the unfinished, almost monochromatic "The Jew Etc." (1976), we are all exiles, cast into an uncertain pilgrimage wherein we act out our "own unfinish." Against this diaspora, and against the obdurate fact of the Holocaust, Kitaj places our "elective affinities," the friendships and families we forge in the midst of loss and horror. In a world where the center will not hold, Kitaj turns for succor to those who, faced with the violence that is the world's constant refrain, themselves affirm life in their writing and painting, in their allegiances and convictions. To glimpse homages and icons in Kitaj's paintings, ghosts of others who went before, is to see what may be the only beauty vouchsafed us on our doomed journey through an alien countryside.

Gina Maranto is an award-winning science journalist who has written for Discover, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Book Review. She is at work on a book about the quest to engineer the human line, to be published by Lisa Drew Books.

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