Nov 1st 2007
From The Economist print edition
Ronald Brooks Kitaj, painter of the human condition, died on October 21st, aged 74
WHEN he was very young, Ronald Kitaj ran away to sea. He joined the SS Corona bound for Cuba and Mexico, a fresh-faced Cleveland boy who carried his sketchbooks with him and knew, already, that art was all he wanted to do. And as he travelled, he drew. Before long he had lost his virginity in a Havana brothel and had plunged deep into the reeking taverns and alleyways of port life—a life that was to go on resurfacing, in bold, tortured figurative painting, for the rest of his career.
He was restless always. Teaching art in London in the 1960s, he would slip away from his family at weekends to fly to Frankfurt, or Athens, or Amsterdam—anywhere—to stalk the streets, smell the kitchens, take that murky staircase up to the second floor, and draw what he found. He was a compulsive boulevardier, haunting cafés and bordellos to catch in his sketchbook the chance meetings, assignations and corner solitudes that made the matter of his pictures. Nothing was settled, nowhere was home, because that state of “unfinish” was also his own condition.
Europe drew him for the art of its past. But he kept an American's forthrightness and tendency to challenge things, and he stayed homesick for America—for baseball fields, far horizons, the melancholy scenes of Edward Hopper—through the long decades in England. London was the place of his fame, where he stood in the 1970s and 1980s beside Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Frank Auerbach, and was perhaps the finest draughtsman of any of them; but he felt a refugee and an outsider there. If there was a “London School” of painting, as he controversially declared there was in 1976, he was one of the least social members of it, and at the Royal College of Art, where he taught, he kept his distance from the Pop Art movement he had helped to start.
To put Mr Kitaj in a box was difficult anyway. He liked Surrealism, but mostly for its belief in the primacy of free association and dreams; when he began a picture, he had no idea where it might take him. Cézanne's late canvases of monolithic naked bathers were his favourite style, and one he hoped to grow towards in old age. Like Degas, he rubbed pastels over heavily textured paper; like Hans Memling, he painted portraits in severe vertical panels. He could use paint as thickly and brightly as Gauguin, or brush it as a thin wash over deep, heavy sketches in pit charcoal.
With ceaseless curiosity, he borrowed from the past. As he painted, books lay around him on the floor, especially his treasured collection of the Warburg Journals on art history, open to whatever symbol or image might inspire him. However unconnected Mr Kitaj felt to particular countries or to fashions in the art world, he was a secure and unapologetic part of a tradition of figurative painting, of interpreting “sweating people in their inbalance”, that went back over centuries. Abstract art he had little time for; he worked in a direct line from the painting he “absurdly” most admired, Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Joe Singer on the train 火车上的乔·辛格
At every point his pictures were informed by words. His early collage canvases included bits of text in his careful, sloping script; later ones had commentaries written to hang beside them, in conscious imitation of T.S. Eliot's notes to “The Waste Land”. Mr Kitaj, a bibliomane and an insatiable reader, knew that literature could do things that art could not. He wanted his paintings to have all the intellectual complexity and modern angst of Ezra Pound or W.H. Auden, and he longed to create in art a figure as memorable as the characters in Dickens or in Tolstoy.
His reliance on texts brought him scorn in England in the end. The critical reaction to his 1994 retrospective at the Tate was so violent—contributing too, he believed, to the untimely death of his second wife, Sandra Fisher—that he left England three years later for Los Angeles, and did not return. It seemed to him that English minds were closed to the possibilities in his work.
The memorable figure he had created in his paintings was not the one he had imagined. For years, Mr Kitaj had been haunted by a sense of “the Other” shadowing him. By the early 1960s, he realised that this Other was his long-ignored identity as a Jew. Jewishness explained everything: his love of texts, his instinctive empathy with themes of blame and persecution, his sense of exile. Gradually, he decided to strive to produce a Jewish art, depicting in paint the fear and dislocation that his idol, Franz Kafka, had encapsulated in words. He would paint, he said, like Cézanne and Degas, but after Auschwitz.
From that point, in Mr Kitaj's paintings, his own symbols began to appear. He drew chimneys smoking, or flues in which figures were trapped; blocked passages, and doors opening on darkness. In one picture, based on Giorgione's La Tempestà, he painted the gatehouse of Auschwitz. Railways took his characters away. One figure in particular rode on these trains: a man called Joe Singer, who had dated his mother before she was married, and who might have been his father if life had been different. Joe Singer sometimes had Mr Kitaj's face; and as he stared from the window, his Homburg low over his eyes, he wore the same expression of endless wandering, with no home before or after.