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This item is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

'I've read that Buchenwald was constructed on the very hill where Goethe often walked with Eckermann.' R.B. Kitaj (29 October 1932 - 21 October 2007)

'How wonderful it would be,' John Ashbery wrote in 1979, 'if a painter could unite the inexhaustibility of poetry with the concreteness of painting. Kitaj, I think, comes closer than any other contemporary, and he does so not because he is painting ideas, but because he is constantly scrutinizing all the chief indicators - poetry, pictures, politics, sex, the attitudes of people he sees, and the auras of situations they bring with them - in an effort to decode the cryptogram of the world.' In Kitaj he finds a semblable from a tradition quite different from his own. Ashbery evokes Joseph Shannon's portrait of R.B. Kitaj, eyes shut 'as though he had, for the time being, seen enough'. Now the eyes are shut for good.

No British critic shared Ashbery's vision when Kitaj's retrospective opened at the Tate in 1994. The reception was virulent. Sandra Fisher, the artist's wife, died in the midst of the fracas. A painting he produced two years later, having returned to the United States, is entitled The Critic Kils and signed 'By Ron and Sandra'. This aftermath haunts his later paintings. Frank Auerbach told him he was a victim of a gap between cultures. It was more a case of gaps: racial, generic, temperamental. Gaps between and gaps within.

He called himself a bibliomaniac and spent half his life with poetry and certain kinds of prose. Eliot and Pound ('my favourite anti-semite') had meant more to him, he said, than most painters. His work is as much a part of the history of poetry in the twentieth century as of the history of art. He loved Black Mountain and was close to Creeley and Duncan (producing a double portrait of them), he revered Olson (whom he also drew), was friends with Ginsberg and many others. In a sense, poetry was where he remained American, even as he grew estranged from the American art scene.

To Kafka and Walter Benjamin he owes primary debts. 'Benjamin thrills me in no small measure because he does not cohere, and beautifully. He was one of those lonely few who lived out Flaubert's instruction: "Not to resemble one's neighbor; that is everything."'. The use of 'cohere' brings to mind Pound's 'I cannot make it cohere' in the late Drafts and Fragments of the Cantos. Benjamin is at the heart of the great picture The Autumn of Central Paris (1972- 3). The dramatis personae of Kitaj's imagination include Rosa Luxemburg and Virginia Woolf, Dickinson and Conrad. His first solo exhibition, at Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1963, he entitled 'Pictures with commentary, Pictures without commentary'. Text was included in some of the pictures and the catalogue is full of words. 'Where Kitaj differs from his peers,' writes Anthony Rudolf, 'even other Jewish ones like Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, is the public nature of his love of the written word. [...He] makes pictures like The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg or Reflections on Violence where the words enter the frame, subverting or complicating the centripetal unity of the painting.' Ashbery puts it differently, 'The works teem with references to films, poetry, novels and photography, but they make their effect with purely plastic means.' Or, as he said of Frank O'Hara's poems, they are 'instances of themselves'.

The commentary Kitaj writes is a part of the work, but a picture never illustrates an idea. In a sense the commentary guarantees the integrity of a painting, teasing out distracting ambiguities, so that when one observes it the space between is cleared of marginal considerations, one can look straight. The commentaries, one critic says, are part of the frame, keeping 'prose understanding and paraphrase' where they should be.

Ashbery likened Kitaj's influence in Britain to that of Pound early in the century. Pound came when Europe still seemed the centre of things, Kitaj when the centre had moved west. He was 'Bookish, belligerent, [...] yet a firm believer in a human art that is both politically and morally committed,' says Ashbery, modern despite his love for the art of the past. Or because of it, of Titian, Giorgione, Degas and Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian. Of Eliot and Pound, Joyce and Yeats. He is conservative and radical, 'contrary' in the interests of continuity. The spirit of Kafka takes him by the heart, he imagines Karl Kraus, Paul Celan, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Pound invented Imagism and then Vorticism. Kitaj invented the School of London, a kind of rejoinder to the New York School of painters, in the 1976 Hayward exhibition 'The Human Clay'. His friend David Hockney liked to quote the line from Auden's Letter to Lord Byron, 'To me Art's subject is the human clay.' At a time when abstract expressionism was in the ascendant, this exhibition was about the figurative, but not in a spirit of reaction. Kitaj told the Arts Council, when asked to curate the exhibition, that he would 'only buy pictures representing people'. And so he did. Among the forty-eight artists he celebrated were Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews, Hockney, and himself.

He wrote, 'I have felt very out of sorts with my time. It is no great comfort to hear from one of the three or four poets writing in English [Creeley] that "poetry feels like a shutter banging in the wind...vague and diffuse". I hardly know why I agreed to buy pictures for the Arts Council. I should have stayed in bed like Oblomov. Anyway, the shutter banging in the wind did not defeat what became a labour of love and I'm glad I did it.' He added, with beautiful confidence, 'There are artistic personalities in the small island more unique and strong and I think numerous than anywhere in the world outside America. There are ten or more people in this town, or not far away, of world class, including my friends of the abstract persuasion. In fact, I think there is a substantial School of London.' In like terms Pound had introduced his radical equipe in the century's teens.

Artistic personalities there certainly were but critical personalities were lacking. How direct Kitaj's language is, like Pound's: 'Do not take this exhibition as a tightass presumption for one kind of holy art or what Auden called a "moral landscape". Some argument may be suggested here but argument within the art...' 'Argument within the art': that's a wonderful phrase. And Pound is there in his own voice. 'No one will own the truth - as Pound said once, "despite all the hard-boiled and half-baked vanities of all the various lots of us" - there will always be various lots of truths according to the odd lives we lead. Everyone is built differently and artistic, like political, argument will only be suppressed at our peril.' That was 1976, when Kitaj is at his most optimistic. 'There will always be various lots of truth'. He was about to change direction; having been an orchestrator, a comrade and polemicist, he began to descend into what might be his specific difference.

Before he joined the merchant navy in his teens, his step-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, arrived in New York. This figure out of a European history came as a reminder and, in time, a kind of muse. The title of his picture The Jew, etc. (1979) is taken, Ashbery says, from a book of Turgenev's stories, but the figure in the picture includes the artist. Ten years later Kitaj published The First Diasporist Manifesto. Frederic Raphael writes of his 'jejune candours' which 'show how a sophisticated artist can be given an uneasy conscience by "irrelevancies",' the attempt of the Jew to come inside the culture he has elected, trading 'his obsolete specificity for a noble and "higher" model'. There is a headlong quality to Kitaj's writing here (a debt to Pound?), but jejune or not it touches the quick of any 'displaced person', any expatriate however 'at home'.

He was and would remain a marginal figure; that was now clear: American, Jew, going in his own direction. In his essay 'This is Not Your Rest' (in The Singer on the Shore) Gabriel Josipovici turns to the Manifesto. Kitaj talks of Jews and Modernists 'in the same breath because he finds in both the marks of displacement. He sets Modernism against Romanticism as the art of rootlessness against the art of rootedness: "To my mind," Kitaj says, "the very deeply rooted Provençal Cézanne...had baked Impressionism into the final synthesis of his great southern baking machines, to which Picasso replied as a young relocated Spaniard in the Demoiselles d'Avignon." ' He calls himself 'a guest in the house of art', impatient of his adopted country's respect for the little virtues and its neglect for the larger ones. For him, the larger virtues are embodied in actual people and their oeuvre. Rudolf says, 'Kitaj as a man, citizen and artist inhabits a lieu de mémoire - yielding a creatively energising tension in his work - between the immense power and weight of his revered fathers and the equally immense collective power and weight of those who were murdered because of what they were.'

In 2005 Kitaj published a second Manifesto in which he takes possession of a sentence of Philip Roth's from The Counterlife and makes it his own, a way of refiguring his past: 'I've got Jew on the Brain. Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my Dada, my String Theory, my Lost Horizon.' Kafka was now his Virgil in the treacherous Castle of his later years, and Kafka's life was a narrative he explored extensively in his art.

Commenting on his painting If Not, Not (1975- 6) Kitaj defines one of the strands of his picture as 'a certain allegiance to Eliot's Waste Land and its (largely unexplained) family of loose assemblage. Eliot used, in his turn, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the dying figures among the trees to the right of my canvas make similar use of Conrad's bodies strewn along the riverbank.' The second main theme is Auschwitz. The Waste Land is 'an antechamber to hell'.

There is in Kitaj's writing, despite its rootedness in the particulars of his own experiences and traditions, generous space for the writer, reader and artist of today - especially the displaced persons, who feel the living presence of the great Modernists more strongly perhaps than the presence of some of their contemporaries. In particular his unironic, unironising take on Modernism, his non-negotiable American candour, give Kitaj a durable pertinence, over and above which is the enormous legacy of the images his great and troubled imagination produced.

This item is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

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