R. B. Kitaj: The Tate Fiasco and Some Key History Paintings

Article excerpt

R. B. Kitaj, who had been one of the major figures in the European painting scene since 1960, was given a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1994. This tribute, a great honor for any artist whether living or deceased, resulted in a disastrous reception by the London press. His critics' vitriolic opinions and the painter's responses are summarized in this article. Kitaj, the Diasporist, a term he coined for those like himself whom he sees as marginalized, is too "literary" and too Jewish for British taste. Painting, for Kitaj, who was an American expatriate for forty years, is a personal voyage, and a select sampling of his history canvases reveals his deep attachment and concern for the plights of family members and close friends during the Holocaust. These paintings, as interpreted in this article, indicate how Kitaj belongs to the tradition of the learned painter in an oeuvre devoted to historical remembrance.

The intellectually demanding art of R. B. Kitaj (b. 1932), who has been referred to by the noted art critic of Time Robert Hughes as "the best history painter of our times,"1 clearly reveals that the Holocaust fascinates and haunts him. Kitaj, an American who lived in London for nearly four decades, repatriated to this country in 1997 and now lives in Los Angeles. While the English art scene since 1960 cannot be understood without mention of his strong presence, Kitaj was hailed in 1987 by the late William Lieberman, former curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as "the greatest living American artist."2 Kitaj's greatest preoccupations are his Jewish identity and his compassion for victims of the Nazis. He developed an extensive treatment of the Holocaust through paintings, drawings, prints, and a book, all of which reveal his deep bond to his Jewish roots.3 Powerful statements indicate his commitment:

[A] central condition for me has been the murder of the European Jews. Winston Churchill wrote, "This is probably the greatest crime in the whole history of the world."4

His Holocaust art, one of the most moving bodies of work on this topic, shows both attachment to family history and physical reminders of the horrors he saw while living and traveling in Europe. Several examples will be discussed here to illustrate his empathy. The works will provide a sampling of the erudition with which he feels compelled to treat the atrocities of the Holocaust as a painter and as a Jew with close associations to Nazi persecution. His stepfather, Dr. Walter Kitaj, was forced to flee his native Vienna during the Third Reich. His paternal grandmother, Helene Kitaj, whose family was exterminated, found refuge in Sweden and could only join the Kitaj family in America after World War II.5 The artist grew up among family friends, many of whom were refugees from Nazi Europe. His mother, Jeanne Brooks, was an American-born daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His art, as will be demonstrated in this study, indicates his strong feelings for those who experienced these tragic circumstances during the Holocaust of uprootedness, terror, and death.

Before discussion of some of his Holocaust works, it is important to acknowledge the painter's complex identity. Kitaj is certainly well established among Jewish literary circles, but he also belongs to a distinguished tradition of American artists and writers, including James McNeil Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Jacob Epstein, Henry James, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, who chose to live in England. The self-imposed exile expressed his connection to them when he stated, "London is home in the sense that it was for Henry James, Eliot, Whistler, and Sargent."6 He once said he moved to England not only to study at the Ruskin School in Oxford but also "because James and Eliot and Pound had gone there 50 years before. . . ."7

Kitaj's art, which draws on history, film, poetry, novels, sex, and philosophy, as well as on social and political figures and issues, is in the collections of many major European and American museums, and his work is frequently featured in important exhibitions. …