Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections

The great Diasporist finds a resting place in an exhibition marked by tenderness and fine discrimination, says Alex Danchev

July 21, 2011

Credit: K Enters the Castle at Last, 2004, Copyright R. B Kitaj Estate
Purple patriarch: 'My life in art is more like a Michael Curtiz movie starring W. C. Fields as Franz Kafka'

Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections

Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

Until 8 October

Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections

By Marilyn McCully and Michael Raeburn

Abbot Hall, 87pp, £15.00

ISBN 9781906043094

R.B. Kitaj used to say that he was born in Chagrin Falls, because he thought it sounded more poetic than Cleveland, Ohio.

Kitaj (1932-2007) aspired to poetry, among other things. He spent much of his life in the UK, after a spell as a merchant seaman - a Conradian youth - and a formidable artistic education at the Cooper Union Institute in New York, the Akademie der bildenden Kunste in Vienna, the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and the Royal College of Art in London, "where, in the first week, I began my constant friendship with the amazing Hockney".

Kitaj majored in friendship. When he married Sandra Fisher, in the Sephardic Synagogue of Bevis Marks in London in 1983, David Hockney was his best man, and Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff were among the witnesses.

Kitaj apprenticed himself early to what he called "the primacy of artistic craziness": passionate commitment, deep immersion, fierce self-scrutiny. His career is a monument to the dedicated artist life. He grew crazier with each passing year. Towards the end, in Los Angeles, his regimen was very like Cézanne's. According to his daily schedule: "4.30 alarm rings, walk to the Westwood Coffee Bean at 6 to write and sketch, 10.00 return home to paint, eat lunch rest. Receive visitors for tea at 4 or continue painting, have dinner, retire at 8."

He had a strong sense of artistic transmission, or filiation. He saw himself as part of a long European tradition, "in the aura of Cézanne and other masters", as he put it in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2001-02. He was a magnificent draughtsman. His drawing master, he said, was Degas. This was not completely fanciful. At the Ruskin School he was a pupil of Percy Horton, who was a pupil of Walter Sickert, who was a pupil of Degas. Ultimately, however, Cézanne was the man. "In the mysterious way of love," declared Kitaj, "Cézanne singles me out." Artists create their own precursors, as Borges slyly said.

Kitaj's is an art of high seriousness. Even its joyfulness is serious. Unfashionably, he believed that art could bear witness; and in his own inimitable fashion he bore witness to the terrible 20th century - the Shoah, the Terror, the camp, the pit. In his First Diasporist Manifesto (1989) he wrote: "We learn about life and its events by uncovering ourselves...The timeless Beckett may also be paraphrased: (Art), that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation...I even suspect that art can mend the world a little."

"Diasporism" was a school invented by Kitaj himself. It had a catch-all, DIY quality. Perhaps the best explanation he ever provided lay in an analogy with Claude Lévi-Strauss' celebrated notion of bricolage, the eclectic and ever-changing composition of cultural forms. "Lévi-Strauss called bricoleur what I call diasporist," Kitaj wrote in the Second Diasporist Manifesto (2007), "the handyman who recycles the rags and bones of the myths and life-histories of the race of man, bringing what one can into one's own life, and in my case my painting life."

The Second Diasporist Manifesto is a kind of manifesto poem in 615 free verses. Verse 65 reads: "The Diasporist Exegetical Tradition. Tell what happened! Tell about one's own picture! Or don't." Kitaj had a rabbinical commitment to exegesis. His confessions and obsessions poured out in print as well as paint. His love of words is what tells him apart from almost every other painter of his generation. His life was in every sense an open book. Curiously, it was the openness and the bookishness that got him into trouble. A 1994 retrospective was savaged by the London critics, many of whom took exception to the artist's exegetical texts or "prefaces". The preface has an honourable pedigree, appropriate for Henry James, but apparently not for Ronald Kitaj. After the furore came the sudden death of his beloved Sandra - "caught in the crossfire", he remarked bitterly. Much punished, Kitaj upped and left, moving back to the US after some 40 years in the UK.

Kitaj loved Kafka, and surely he identified with their consonant K. "Redo Kafka after the Shoah, Gulag and Modern Art," he tells himself in the second manifesto (an expression patterned on Cézanne's famous desire to redo Poussin after nature). "I am K and a great Jewish Painting is the Castle I never seem to realize. But keep trying! Start this painting later today (4 September 2004)! K Enters the Castle! Wow!"

That very painting, K Enters the Castle at Last (2004), features in Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. The dream or the nightmare is a lurid one. K, a purple patriarch bearing a certain resemblance to the artist, enters a room. He has a strange look in his eye, a long white beard and an elongated but evanescent left leg. A large, multicoloured lizard descends a yellow wall. Someone appears to be hanging behind the door. Someone else is trussed up (skewered?) on the floor. The room looks a little like a Matisse after Matisse has fled. If this is Kafkaesque, it seems to owe something to the weirdness of Werner Herzog. Kitaj was steeped in film. His favourite director was John Ford - he painted a wonderful fantasia of John Ford on his Deathbed (1983-84) - "but my life in art is more like a Michael Curtiz movie starring W.C. Fields as Franz Kafka and scripted by Errol Flynn who wrote My Wicked, Wicked Ways".

The Abbot Hall exhibition is preoccupied with love and last things. Masterminded by Marilyn McCully and Michael Raeburn, in concert with Helen Watson of the Lakeland Arts Trust, it is the very opposite of exegetical. It is a model of fine discrimination and rare tenderness. In the catalogue is a photograph of Kitaj and Hockney together, their arms round each other, their faces full of emotion, a testament to friendship, 40 years after they first met. Both have hearing aids: they are united in deafness. How does deafness affect a painter?

In the show is Portrait of R.B. Kitaj (1981) by Frank Auerbach, an etching copied in oil by the subject. Kitaj's own portraits are tremendous. Charcoal studies indicate the range of his friendships: the philosopher Richard Wollheim and his cat Angela; the guru Isaiah Berlin; the writer Philip Roth. (Kitaj lent himself to fiction. Who are the Kitaj characters in Roth's novels?) An old masterly Edgar Allan Poe. A bilious Richard Wagner. Family and familiars.

There are big pictures in the exhibition - The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960) is vintage Kitaj, complete with pasted text - but it is the little ones that count. A series of late self-portraits steal the show. They come in various guises. A remarkable face emerges poignantly through Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire. Perhaps the best is the last, painted over three excited days, shortly before his death. He called it his "Jewish scream". Kitaj the Diasporist had written of his restlessness, his un-at-homeness, his groundlessness. In the small corners of Abbot Hall, it is as if the wanderer has finally found a home.


Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is 100 Artists' Manifestos (2011), which includes extracts from Kitaj's First Diasporist Manifesto and Second Diasporist Manifesto.

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