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This report is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.R.B. Kitaj: The Last Self-Portrait
Just to break the ice, as it were... What are the first images that crop up in your mind when you think of Buenos Aires and Montevideo?
Whores! As a teenage merchant seaman, B.A. and Montevideo meant 'girls' to me just as 'Berlin meant boys' in Isherwood's famous saying about what he and Auden experienced.
Is there a painter and/or writer - dead or alive - you would most have liked to have a conversation with? What would you have asked him?
Cézanne and Kafka and me at a café table. I might have asked them to sketch something for me on a café napkin.
What is it that most moves you to wish to portray someone? His/her poetry or work, the actual face, affection for the person?
Above anything else, I would wish to portray what has never been portrayed before.
Your working with so many people 's faces sent me back to Warburg, to the primitive and the magical. In this sense, it's moving to be reminded by his accomplice E.H. Gombrich that 'in Ancient Egypt many images were made for tombs, and not to be seen, except by the dead person's soul'...
Very good! Gombrich sat for me about eight times for a pastel and I tried to do Warburg's dead person's soul a few times.
How much do you know about a painting - I mean visually, not thematically - before you start work on it?
However present words are in some of your paintings you've never attempted to make writing or fake calligraphy the centre of it, like Cy Twombly has...
The few times I tried, I failed. Yesterday I destroyed a canvas called 'Cézanne Poem' which I have been fiddling with for about twenty years.
What can you tell me about Kitaj as reader? Still hungry after discoveries?
Somewhat hungry but my appetite fails me.
What are the writings on art that most touched you? Would you ever consider publishing your own writings on art all together?
Vincent's letters. My own writings disappoint me.
The Greek word graphe does not distinguish between writing and drawing... How close do you feel to writers who paint or draw, or painters who write, like Blake, Ruskin, Kipling or Stokes?
Only Vincent! And Blake.
You once referred to a 'journal' to a certain painting. Do you keep a diary like Klee or Delacroix that you intend to publish one day?
Once Maurice Blanchot wrote the following about that supreme diarist and hero of yours Franz Kafka: 'The writer never reads his work. To him it's the illegible, a secret before which he does not remain. ' One senses the opposite in your case, a 'knowing' maker. Even so, I wonder if the paintings retain any sense of mystery for you. They keep on being extremely enigmatic to me, even after reading the texts that accompany those pictures you've written about.
Blanchot wrote about Kafka that 'the power of the writer lies not in the hand that writes, but in the other, the one which does not... The power lies in the capacity to stop writing, to interrupt' what never seems to cease. Do you feel anything of this sort is true for you?
Also referring to Kafka, Blanchot speaks of 'An infinite leap: I wish to read that which, however, has not been written. ' May something of this sort turn someone like you into a painter?
Has having lived and worked so closely with Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Hockney given you any sense of feeling, so to speak, inside their work in any way?
Your friend Avigdor Arikha's friend Samuel Beckett, speaking to Matisse's niece Georges Duthuit, famously said: 'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. ' Your work seems to go in the opposite direction. Do you agree with any of the terms alluded to by Beckett?
Actually I do like Samuel Beckett's terms, believe it or not!
One senses that all your readings were literally put into play in your works, as in a game devised by Wittgenstein: 'We could of course also imagine that we had to use rules, and translate a verbal sentence into a drawing in order to get an impression from it. (That only the picture had a soul.)' Why did you feel like attempting Wittgenstein 's portrait?
Because I enjoy dwelling on him, on his special, strange life.
'The wrong image confounds, the correct one helps', wrote Wittgenstein. What tells you what to keep and what to throw out? With time, does it become easier or harder to decide?
Harder to decide. My time is so short... near the end.
'As in poetry, so in painting', you once wrote. What do painting and poetry envy each other?
It would take pages to answer you. I have no energy now.
What is the question you most ask yourself as a painter?
Why can't I be among the astounding painters? I just can't!
After so many years of painting, drawing and writing, do you feel you've been able to get nearer/farther from what?
Farther from Cézanne, Giotto, Rembrandt, Vincent and others.
Published in part in the Buenos Aires Herald, 4 November 2007
This report is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.