Kitaj’s paintings and drawings may be strange and provocative, but they are always engaged, as Michael Ajerman finds at a new show in London.
After almost a decade a new R.B. Kitaj exhibition rises to the surface in London. Covering over 50 years of art-making, this show at Piano Nobile is split over the gallery’s two individual large-scale spaces, divided by a brisk walk across the street. This helps organise things tremendously well. Here we have Kitaj before 1980, and after.
The show begins with Kitaj’s diptych of Francis Bacon peering at you through the diamond shaped glazing of the gallery’s door. Synchromy with F.B.- General of Hot Desire is Kitaj’s homage to his hero of bodily depictions and British (Irish) painting. Many of Kitaj’s Royal College classmates, and countless others for decades, would be inspired by Bacon. It is a painting that celebrates all of the many strengths of Kitaj’s 1960s pictures. The strange gallivanting modernist architecture used in these paintings enables him to bring a monumental feeling of space and possibility. A playset, and arena, he fills with his people, places, and ideas, realised with flat stumbled brushwork and saturated colour.
|R.B. Kitaj, Synchromy with F.B. - General of hot desire|
On the left we are given Bacon looking more like WC Fields in an odd outfit that screams new money and the bad fashion choices that come with it. To the side we are given a female nude fractured into pieces, possibly Henrietta Moraes, Bacon’s friend and muse who inspired his body paintings of the time. She seems like a sphinx with a stiff rendered face, adorned with a single Michelangelo-esque female breast dipped in florescent colour, while her inner thighs and genitalia, with pubic hair, seems to reference both Courbet’s best and photographic erotica. The figures have been transplanted into an Orient Express train carriage as a bright European countryside flies by. All the while white hands, that strangely seem anything but threatening, grab for her throat.
The right-hand panel feels more like the real Bacon, a bit more intense in profile, his hidden muscular strength suggested by plump forearms exposed by a rolled-up shirt sleeve. Kitaj gives him green and yellow, comic book, x-ray vision, his superpower allows him to look through men, women, animals, and hubris. It is a solid vision of an artist who is busy seeing, thinking and dissecting everything, all at once.
Downstairs explores the many approaches to drawing that became Kitaj’s passion in the 1970s. He was no longer painstakingly making charcoal drawings onto canvas that would later be obliterated in colour for completed paintings. Drawing was now to stand on its own, working with a combination of charcoal and pastel on his porridge paper. Think of a rough yellow watercolour paper and imagine it crossed with elephant hide.
|R. B. Kitaj, Marynka on Her Stomach|
Comparing the Fauve nude in Synchromy to Marynka on Her Stomach is an important matter. The diptych nude seems derived from photography creating a chilled separation. In contrast there is a quietness and a deep responsibility felt when looking at Marynka posing on a day bed. She appears confident to show her body, in full, from behind, nothing is made up here. Everything from the cushion embroidery up the inner thighs is rendered slowly. However, from the waist up the figure seems less defined, possibly to give the sensation of the figure moving through space on an awkward diagonal. There is nothing of art school life-rooms here, instead it is more about the working and trust of artist and model – decisions made between them in private.
Dominie (Dartmouth), seen in the flesh after so many years only in reproduction, does not disappoint. Kitaj’s three quarters profile of his daughter in her teen years captures an essence of her – his determination to catch the emotions and energies in her head is palpable. The upturned arm holds echoes of the mechanics of Balthus’ tonal Italian figure drawings, while the level of focus on the head and hair is touching, skilful, and the artist’s own.
|R. B. Kitaj, Dominie (Dartmouth)|
In the second space coming in at around seven feet by twelve inches is the painting, The Gentile Conductor.This is the sister piece to the absent The Jewish Rider, a large painting starring writer Michael Padro as a worn passenger traveling through a beautiful countryside to visit the Death Camps after the war. With The Gentile Conductor we are given the spin off series. This painting, tall as a professional basketball player, looks sinister, yet because of its extreme slenderness, goofy. The conductor’s hat is too small for his head and fits clumsily, while his arms gesture to the side, giving the impression of being preoccupied in another train carriage. In the movie in one’s mind, the painting’s dual points of view allow us to imagine the scar faced creep in the distance, while the red velvet carriage walkway leads directly to our own feet. Kitaj puts us there, making us wonder if we have our ticket and documents deep in our pockets for inspection, or if we need to hide in the toilets to avoid the conductor for a stop or two.
|R.B. Kitaj, The Gentile Conductor, 1984-85|
From the 1970s on one of Kitaj’s many obsessions was ‘his Jews’. In the following decade he declared in writing that his individual Jewish diaspora art was not a movement, but rather his own club, with a membership of one. If that Groucho Marx joke is now ringing in your head, you get a gold ribbon. Furthermore, he was adamant in wanting to see a Palestinian diaspora art flourish, just as he supported the blossoming of Black American and queer art.
History has once again returned to the deep and tangled question of the Middle East with the events that have come to a head this October in Israel and Palestine. The impossible-not-to-watch television tirelessly presents interviewees avoiding questions in order to promote their own agenda. It is endless, and I along with many others, fear what is to come. Kitaj’s late painting, Arabs and Jews (After Ensor) (not in the show), has been on the back of my eyelids, I wish it would leave and it won’t. Of this painting Kitaj wrote: ‘This is my third painting called Arabs and Jews, a fight I expect will never end. This picture is based on Ensor’s painting The Fight. You may choose which is Arab and which is Jew.’
|R. B. Kitaj, Arabs and Jews (After Ensor) [not in show]|
We bring ourselves, our history, our light and dark, to life and to viewing art. We decide who is who in this painting. Are both figures on the brink of blind rage? Who is the culprit, who is being attacked, who is in self-defence? This is a painting that is needed now more than ever – not for our own propaganda but for us to contemplate why we think the way we do. Kitaj had an unwavering belief in the two-state solution in the Middle East, something to be achieved by talking on both sides, with debate, understanding, and some well needed humour as a cushion. Let’s hope he was dead wrong about it being a fight that will never end.
Was Kitaj the most controversial easel painter? I don’t know and personally, I don’t care. We need his artwork more than ever – the hits and the misses. This exhibition holds true gems deep from the ocean. The show is on until early next year. The Central Line is the quickest way.
R.B Kitaj: London to Los Angeles
25 October 2023 – 26 January 2024
Piano Nobile Gallery, London