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R.B. Kitaj in his own words

23 January 2018

In his last decade sequestered in Los Angeles, exiled from his adoptive London, nursing critical slights real and imagined, and mourning his beloved second wife Sandra Fisher, Ron Kitaj expressed some of his rage against the dying of his light on his canvases. The rest he saved for this memoir. When he ended his own life in 2007, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and unable to paint, the manuscript of these Confessions was left in his studio, to be found by his youngest son, Max. Kitaj’s reflections loop compulsively back to the two imperatives of his life: the desire to be an artist (a lust-for-life need first formed he says ‘on a Norwegian cargo ship […] slipping out of New York harbor at night, bound for Havana and Mexican ports in the summer of 1950’) and, more specifically, the desire to be an emphatically Jewish artist (a slow-forming self-knowledge that grew to the self-conscious adoption of an ‘outsider’s’ identity in his three decades in London). In reliving this history Kitaj liked to think of himself as Stephen Dedalus, but it feels as if there is much more of the old artist in his portrait than the young. From the age of 68 he furiously poured out his memoir in red ink on yellow legal note pads each morning in his favourite coffee shop in LA; and all of that fury is preserved.

What Kitaj terms his ‘crankiness’ was due in large part to the ‘Tate War’ of 1994, the retrospective of his work that was savaged by the London critics. Kitaj, then at the height of his powers, had been persuaded by Nicholas Serota to offer dense explanations of the paintings for the show. This academic gloss was a red rag to many critics. (Tim Hilton called Kitaj an ‘egoist imprisoned by his library’. Andrew Graham-Dixon described him as art’s equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, ‘a small man with a megaphone pressed against his lips’. And they were among the kinder comments.)

Two weeks after that show opened Kitaj’s wife Sandra died, at 47, of a brain aneurysm. Her death, he believed, was caused by the stress of reading the headlines attacking his life’s work. The memoir returns again and again to that wound and to thoughts of revenge against his tormentors in the ‘yellow press’. At one point he documents 11 reasons why the critics appeared intent on destroying him. Half of those are different versions of anti- Semitism; the rest include perceived envy of ‘a fact everyone knows: I can write better than “they” can’ and sexual jealousy of ‘a foreigner who lived in a big house in Chelsea for 25 years with the most beautiful woman in London (featured in Vogue, etc.)’.

You have to admire Kitaj’s frankness, but reading it does little to dispel the charge of egomania. Though he occasionally defers to the talents of his friend David Hockney (who offers a tender introduction to this memoir), Kitaj’s bloated case for his own greatness is made in a consuming tone. When he is not creating lineages of genius, Kafka and Brecht and Stravinsky and Chagall, to which he appoints himself true heir (‘I can draw better than any Jew in history’) he is detailing lists of his sexual conquests, mostly teenage students and prostitutes. He enjoyed the echo of Rousseau in his memoir’s title, since he thought of his artistic appetites in libertarian, 18th-century terms.

R.B. Kitaj photographed in London with his cat by Lee Friedlander.

R.B. Kitaj photographed in London with his cat by Lee Friedlander. © Archive Schirmer/Mosel

In the grief of his last decade women always appear more real in his possessive imagination than in the world. His first wife, Elsi, was his very own ‘Alida Valli, Harry Lime’s girlfriend […] I got her! […] Elsi’s stockings would hang to dry in my room.’ After they were married and settled in genteel Dulwich, with a son and adopted daughter, marriage quickly became ‘a problem’ however. ‘I was supposed to be E. Hemingway, the expatriate painter on edge.’ One suspects the marriage was even more of a problem for his wife. After years in which Kitaj recalls disappearing for weeks and months to Paris and New York with different girlfriends, and for ‘perfect days and nights whoring’ in Barcelona dockyards, Elsi took her own life. That fact prompts little soulsearching on Kitaj’s part; rather a digression on ‘the Woman–Man Question shrouded in its darkest Enigma’ and an unhinged discussion of the philosophy of Martin Buber (the ‘I–Thou’ is an unlikely touchstone; with Kitaj, in mid-life, the latter rarely got a look in.)

Having met and married Sandra Fisher, after a ‘frenzied chase of Jewish girls’, Kitaj bought the house in Chelsea where, he suggested, ‘Seven great life-forces would thrive: My painting, My children, My Jewish Question, My friends, My library, My humandrawing, and My Sandra.’ By his account Fisher happily indulged his ‘lifelong addiction to Whoredom [which] ran unabated’.

If he comes across as determinedly unsympathetic in these passages, a better argument for Kitaj’s belief in his own work is carried by the paintings in this book, than by the text. There is an irony in the fact that his always angry sense of colour and drama came most fully into its own after his critical defenestration. He was loyally defended by lifelong friends Frank Auerbach and Hockney, but since, as these Confessions make clear, he recognised little separation between his life and his work, he could hardly cry foul at being judged as an ego as well as an artist. Robert Hughes once observed that ‘Kitaj can draw better than any man alive’; the pastel and charcoal sketches reproduced here go some way to supporting that claim (even if the Hughes quote itself is repeated to the point of desperation).

Some may hear echoes in Kitaj’s writing of Mickey Sabbath, the demonic hero of Philip Roth’s wild and whirling novel, Sabbath’s Theater. The shared cadences are not accidental; during the days and nights when Kitaj felt his late wife’s death most sharply in LA he was in the habit of calling his friend Roth and pouring out his heart.

As with Sabbath there was a little salvation in his fall from grace. Some of Kitaj’s most dramatic and affecting painting depicted the life with Fisher that he had lost, and the ways in which she still haunted him. ‘Sandra appears in […] my septuagenarian dreams. I am alone – with her,’ he wrote. ‘I could make love to my angel with my paintbrush, fondle her again, caress her contours.’ There is a sort of triumph in this, for Kitaj. For the reader who has stuck with him this far there will no doubt be a desire to go back and look again at the work. ‘Posterity excites me to THE END,’ Kitaj wrote. His book is a gift to that stubborn impulse.

R. B. Kitaj: Confessions of an Old Jewish Painter (Eckhart J. Gillen, ed.) is published by Schirmer/Mosel (€39.80).

From the January 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.