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Looking back in anger.

A Fortnightly Review

Confessions of an Old Jewish Painter
by R. B. Kitaj, with an introduction by David Hockney

Schirmer/Mosel 2017 | 384pp | $40.00 £36.00


THE PAINTER R. B. KITAJ took his own life in 2007. He was unwell and had decided to have done with things there and then. In any case, the love of his life, Sandra Fisher, had died more than a decade before. His late paintings seem to indicate that he was keen to join her; many of them are in the form of angels, highly eroticized angels, quite a few bearing the features of himself and his dead wife reaching out to one another in a longing strong enough to overcome death.

These paintings are far from being the best of Kitaj, and yet they raise what we might call one of the perennial questions of modernity: what is the relationship between the sacred and the profane, and what ground, if any, might they share? The question was addressed with characteristic vigour by Paul Gauguin in his painting ‘The Vision after the Sermon’. There Jacob wrestles with his angel, while nuns look on, but it is the nuns who are foregrounded, their drooping winged bonnets much larger than the wings of the angel himself. The priest who has given the sermon is there too, and bears a striking resemblance to the artist. So our visions arise out of us, and are projected on to the profane ground across which we walk, and over which we fight our battles. The sacred is not a different spiritual region to the profane; it is an alternative dimension of the same. We don’t go somewhere else to be spiritual; instead we stay where we are and look harder at what we sometimes call the facts that have been set before us.

Kitaj was obsessed all his life with Cézanne, and Cézanne certainly believed that everything needed in life and art was here, right before us, but we had to learn to see with utter integrity, and that meant ridding ourselves of false visual conventions. It is not the subject-matter of art that makes it lofty, but its method of perception. That is why Cézanne wanted to paint a carrot that was pregnant with revolution. It is why he believed the portrayal of a single apple could carry as much transcendent significance as a visual account of the crucifixion. It is why his studies of Mont Sainte Victoire are fuller of necessary information than any photograph has ever been. They have worked harder to arrive at a visual truth. There is more layering here than the Cyclops of a camera lens can ever manage.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with credits, captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read captioned information, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

One of the striking features of modern art is that it frequently does not look ‘finished’ in the way of the post-Renaissance art that preceded it. It can seem provisional, even sketchy. There are precedents for this. Rembrandt grew less and less interested in finishing canvases as he grew older. One of his clients, having paid a hefty sum, sent the painting back and asked if the painter would mind finishing it. We see in some of the self-portraits how, having achieved his work on the central features, Rembrandt has no interest left for working on the hands at the margins. A brief diagram would have to do.

If Cézanne had become Kitaj’s artistic exemplar at the end of his life, he had been Picasso’s at the beginning of his. That difficult man, clambering off each day into the countryside at Arles or into his studio, was fumbling about, trying to discover the contours of modern art — a topography he was constructing, even in the moments of discovering it. ‘He didn’t know what he was doing,’ his widow said to the young disciples who turned up in 1906 to honour his memory. ‘You must understand: he didn’t know how to finish a painting.’

Not knowing how to finish a painting, or a book: this might not be a bad description of the modernist enterprise.

Not knowing how to finish a painting, or a book: this might not be a bad description of the modernist enterprise. Kafka’s writings (and Kafka was crucially important for Kitaj) explore their own state of radical incompletion. In many of Kitaj’s paintings the canvas showed through in sundry places to the end. But for those in Paris, who filled the salons and review pages, and knew only too well how to ‘finish a painting’, Cézanne was filled with contempt. He snarled. Flaubert was filled with the same contempt, and said so repeatedly, also frequently snarling, for the writers in Paris. Art at its most probing refuses the immediate fashions that garner praise.

In his exuberantly eccentric Second Diasporist Manifesto, Kitaj wrote: ‘“He who thinks that he has finished is finished.” — The Kotzker; never stop studying, and painting what Cézanne called “studies” and “researches.” UNFINISH, in the studio of an old isolate, beyond Art if possible, toward UNFINISHed life.’1 ‘The Kotzker’ here was Menahem Mendl of Kotz, the ‘Kotzker Rebbe’, another troublesome Jew. And ‘finish’ here, as an act of facile closure, seems to be, in effect, a state of intellectual bad faith. It is that act of completion which cuts off the source of questioning, the motivation of research, the imbalance in the question which perennially needs adjusting (and yet never can be, finally). And we have a curious prolepsis of this condition in William Blake. In his brief and unhappy time at the Royal Academy School, the young unteachable ranted at the eminent Keeper, Moser: ‘These things that you call Finish’d are not even Begun; how can they then be Finish’d? The man who does not know the Beginning never can know the end of Art.’

KITAJ. THAT OLD isolate in his studio is presented to us here, in all his spiritual experimentalism, and his earthly passions. He was a curmudgeon. And for once Samuel Johnson’s spurious etymology in his Dictionary of 1755 seems appropriate: a coeur méchant, or wicked heart. This posthumously published autobiography can at times still manage to shock. Kitaj went in search of whores all his life (except at the end), and celebrated them in his art.

Here he reveals that neither his relationship with his Princess, Sandra Fisher, nor his marriage to her, stopped this particular quest. When they lived in Paris, Sandra would occasionally accompany him on the harlot trail. If the modern world has a way of coping with such behaviour, except in outright condemnation, it has not recently revealed it.

In anthropological terms, the canvas is a sacred space in its own right. What applies within its boundaries does not apply beyond them; it has that in common with the nave of a church, or a football pitch. That sacred space was where Kitaj chose to live for much of his life. His stated ambition was to draw better than any Jew who had ever lived. His engagement with modernism was life-long, but then so was his commitment to figurative art. He still believed that the easel painting was a revolutionary space, which had not been superseded by either installations or Duchampian ready-mades, though he loved Duchamp. Inside the sacred space of the canvas the struggle could continue, as Keats put it, ‘Betwixt Damnation and Impassion’d clay’. That the canvas becomes the designated area of negotiation between the sacred and the profane can be seen as one aspect of its ‘unfinishability’. What is going on here transcends any neat categories of ocular compartmentalization. It returns endlessly to that inexhaustible subject, the human clay.

An American living in London, a remarkably gifted draughtsman pursuing an obsession with the modernist heritage, Kitaj was also obsessively Jewish. As the first sentence of his Diasporist Manifesto puts it: ‘I have Jew on the brain.’ He tried to encourage others to join him in a modern, self-consciously Jewish avant-garde. None of his friends or colleagues wanted to know. They preferred to be known as artists who were Jews; not as Jewish artists. But Kitaj obsessed away, constantly alluding visually to the Holocaust, and saying that the greatest artist of his time, the number one contender for greatness, had undoubtedly been Kafka. Gershom Scholem, another of Kitaj’s heroes, believed that Kafka walked the line between mysticism and nihilism, understanding as he did that the tradition of revelation was always in place, but that we no longer had any ready access to it. Modernity had insulated us from the transmissibility of revealed truth. This connects up with Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘the decay of experience’ in modern times. The vastness of our information starts to feel more and more prosthetic. The truth becomes deictic, no longer internalized. We refer to it, but it finds it hard to live or thrive inside us. We might also note of all Kafka characters that the harder they work at their craft or profession, the lonelier they become.

He liked to quote Einstein: ‘I am a profoundly religious non-believer.’

So he liked to quote Einstein: ‘I am a profoundly religious non-believer.’ Kitaj was obsessively Jewish, in his own idiosyncratic way, but Yahweh seems to have disappeared somewhere between Kafka’s boundaries of mysticism and nihilism. Yahweh became like the canvas in some of Cézanne’s exercises in passage: there as a grounding to be merged into and risen out of, taking its colouring (chameleon-like) from our spiritual combat, the chiaroscuro of our intellectual itinerary. Our delineations of spiritual truth can only be oblique. And here Kitaj might be largely following Scholem. Any god whom we might seek to formulate, the Almighty himself has already transcended. The question is not whether one believes in God, but whether one can accede to or acclaim any formulation of ‘God’ that is intellectually available. In one sense, all studies of religion finally come down to questions of philology. Any manifestation of God in art or theology can only ever glancingly touch that kabbalistic Ein-sof, which is the infinite power. The Lord might utter himself forth as sefirot, or emanations, but an emanation is neither a definition nor a portrait. All we can ever discover are traces, either in a text or within the sacred space of the canvas. A mystery explained is a mystery betrayed or exploded. You are permitted to provide a commentary, even a critique, but never an explanation. All philology ultimately approaches ‘the word of God’, the way Nicodemus approached in the dark to find out what these seemingly salvific words might actually mean.

The classic artistic response to fragmentation is montage. The advantage of montage is a universal allusiveness not just to one tradition, but to all of them.

Kitaj was a visual artist in an age of fragmentation, and he never forgot the fact. The classic artistic response to fragmentation is montage. The advantage of montage is a universal allusiveness not just to one tradition, but to all of them simultaneously. Its danger is a slick eclecticism. At the height of his powers, in a painting like ‘The Hispanist’, Kitaj seemed able to recapture the vividness of the pictorial portrait at its greatest, together with an acknowledgment that the canvas had flattened, that after Cézanne the table would always tip forward into the plane of its own composition. And that after Picasso, the sacred space of the canvas was now open to suggestion, sometimes from the ancient past. The ancient past offers forms that still elude the present.

Kitaj was also a midrashist. Such an interpreter usually operates in words, but he (word-obsessed as he was) functioned through images. Midrash returns to a canonic text, and asks of it questions it could not ask of itself. It is, in the sense of both Walter Benjamin and Gerhard Scholem, a critique. In their sense, critique is an awakening from textual entrapment. Our textual entrapment is a necessity: it represents our only possibility of freedom, since it provides us with the necessary literacy to understand our labyrinthine situation. Critique never abandons tradition; it puts it into suspension while granting considerable autonomy to the informed intelligence. Kitaj endlessly returned upon history and belief in the spirit of critique. That critique frequently takes the form of montage: lay one image beside another and they silently comment upon one another. Like two integers multiplied, they can produce a third neither left to itself could have predicted.

What new information might the modern midrashist bring to ancient formulations, images and traditions? One of the most radical is dream. It was Surrealism that insisted that the dream presents us with as much relevant data as is provided by the ocular waking information we used to call realism. This is why Walter Benjamin based the method of his Arcades Project on Surrealism: the dream was integral to his vision, and the phantasmagoria was society’s way of dreaming – often its way of dreaming the age to come. If the dream is as central to modernity as the city plan, then our means of representation are immeasurably enriched and disrupted. This is what the Surrealists understood: the need for commando-raid juxtapositions. Freud was baffled by their efforts. As he told André Breton, he did not understood what Surrealism actually wanted. These characters seemed to be celebrating facts that he could only mourn.

There is a great deal of dreaming in Kitaj’s pictures. The dreaming process is central to his way of conceiving compositions. This is evidently the case in a picture like ‘The Philosopher – Queen’ where the female figure bilocates in a progress back to her own dreaming room, or ‘The Symbolist’, whose somnambulism would surely have struck a chord with Breton. The streets of Surrealism are filled with the contents of bedrooms, including some of the bodies. ‘I came out of Surrealism,’ Kitaj said. His form of the method lent itself to allegory, since the trouvaille always points in two directions. Firstly towards the contingency of its arrival in this space, but secondly to the causality of its manufacture and its embodied meaning.

But many of the larger canvases are also dream-instantiated. ‘If Not, Not’ has T. S. Eliot in the foreground, enticed by a contemporary nymph, while in the background lurks the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is a severed head; bodies lie around. This is montage informed and inspirited by dream, a dream that is all too often a nightmare, that nightmare of history which Stephen Dedalus was so anxious to awake from. This is one midrashist’s take on the hideous goings-on of the twentieth-century. When Kubrick was making Doctor Strangelove, it soon struck him with great force that he could not make this simply as a realist film: the category was not flexible enough to contain the insanity to be portrayed. So it became fantastical, comic, satiric and surreal, more Jonathan Swift than George Eliot, and the same process goes on frequently in Kitaj. Montage is one way to convey the sheer incompatibility of so much in life and history that coexists. In ‘His New Freedom’ Kitaj combines two incommensurable forms of existence in one human figure, as if Caliban and Ariel had miscegenated. They clone themselves into a spiritual bifurcation.

One book that Kitaj was never far away from was the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She is a supreme example of the poet as philologist, worrying away unceasingly at what words actually mean. She talks of her neighbours rising each day, polishing their shoes and addressing an eclipse they call Father. Eclipse could have come from Scholem. We turn any spiritual being into an idol if we imagine we can formulate all the laws concerning it. What, after all, do the words actually mean? The prime nomenclator, Adam, assigned names to the animals and plants as he saw fit. Their propriety lay in the character of their origination. Such a lingua adamica guarantees meaning by the mere act of bestowing it. But language in its later historical manifestations is always mangled and corrupt. Etymology is the study of distortion and decay: the dictionary shows us the extent of our corruption. And history shows us the dire corruption of our etymologies, one reason amongst others why the artist must always be contra mundum. Hence Kitaj’s injunction to himself in the Manifesto: ‘Withdraw! More than I have already.’ In this respect, Emily Dickinson, the secret kabbalist of Amherst, was there before him. Her philology was not dictionary-bound so much as street-wise; not that she was seen much on the streets of Amherst. But she frisked the words as though they were criminals. The meaning of a word, said Ludwig Wittgenstein, is its use in the language. But sometimes that ‘meaning’ might need a poem to divest it of its party frock:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

Kitaj felt this way about the critics who savaged his 1994 exhibition, where the paintings had been accompanied by his own midrashic commentaries. His beloved wife died shortly after, and at first he held those critics responsible for her death. Later on he came to realise that this underestimated her. She had gone, all the same. He longed to follow. He painted his way towards her over the following years, always edging towards the grave. Emily Dickinson had called it ‘the white exploit’ – that last departure that awaits us all.

So it was that in 2007 a man lay on a couch in America with a plastic bag tied over his head. On the table there was a bottle, filled the day before with tablets. And a quart of Bourbon, half-empty now. He was dead. He was an artist, at times a great one. He died in the city of angels, Los Angeles, driven from London by the vinegar and bile of a number of hireling critics of the Zeitgeist. That and his wife’s death. His posthumously published autobiography is as engaging and outrageous as he was, both as man and artist.

RBK 1932-2007

LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and a second collection, of his Fortnightly essays on Walter Benjamin, is in preparation. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Note: The editors wish to express gratitude to the R.B. Kitaj Studio Project for their cooperation.


  1. Verse 352, Second Diasporist Manifesto: a New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses by R. B. Kitaj. New Haven, 2007.

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