The Art of Identity (21 Feb – 16 June 2013)
Jewish Museum London
A celebration of the work of R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) one of the most significant painters of the post-war period, exhibited concurrently at the Jewish Museum London and Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
Comprised of more than 100 works, this dual-venue show is the first major retrospective exhibition in the UK since the artist’s controversial Tate show in the mid-1990s and the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre since his death in 2007. It is drawn from the international touring exhibition which originated at the Jewish Museum Berlin.
The exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, subtitled ‘Analyst for Our Time’, features over 70 paintings, sketches and prints presenting an overview of all periods of Kitaj’s extensive oeuvre from the 1960s to his death in 2007. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum London, subtitled ‘The Art of Identity’ features around 20 works and will focus on how Kitaj explored and expressed his ‘Jewishness’.
The presentation of the exhibition over the two venues will enable different facets of Kitaj’s identity to be explored in depth for the first time in the UK. Both venues share links to the artist – Kitaj’s London studio was designed by the American architect M.J. Long, whose practice Long & Kentish also designed the extensions to Pallant House Gallery and refurbishment of the Jewish Museum London.
The exhibition further returns the American-born Kitaj to the UK, his country of residence from the 1950s until his abrupt departure in the 1990s. In 1994 the great retrospective of his work at the Tate triggered a flood of negative reviews, which Kitaj termed the “Tate War”. This, combined with the sudden death of his second wife, painter Sandra Fisher, led him to leave London for Los Angeles in 1997.
Born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland, Ohio Kitaj grew up in the left-wing intellectual milieu of his parental home. His mother, Jeanne Brooks, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and his stepfather Walter Kitaj fled Nazi persecution in Vienna to the United States. Following a spell as a merchant seaman Kitaj’s formal art schooling began the 1950s in New York and subsequently Vienna.
Later he enrolled at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, and then, in 1959, he went to the Royal College of Art in London, where he was a contemporary of artists such as Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney, the latter of whom remained his closest painter friend throughout his life.
During the 1960s Kitaj, together with his friends Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud were instrumental in pioneering a new, figurative art which defied the trend in abstraction and conceptualism. Known collectively as the ‘School of London’ – the term Kitaj had first proposed in his seminal exhibition The Human Clay in 1976 – most of them were cultural ‘outsiders’, who remained fiercely loyal to the human figure.
From the mid-1970s, Kitaj began to position himself explicitly as a Jewish artist coupled with his study of role models such as Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Walter Benjamin. In 1989 he published the First Diasporist Manifesto, the longest and most impassioned of many texts discussing the Jewish dimension in his art and thought. Confronting the history of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, and reflecting on his identity as an outsider, he created a Jewish modern art, which he termed “diasporic”, with a rich palate of colour and enigmatic, recurring motifs
For Kitaj, art was a medium of emotional and intellectual exploration. An avid collector of books, his work frequently referenced themes and motifs in intellectual history and literature.