Ronald Brooks Kitaj was born in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Chagrin Falls on October 29, 1932 to Jeanne Brooks, a native of Baltimore and, eventually, a schoolteacher. He acquired his surname when, in 1941, his mother married, for the second time, the research chemist Dr. Walter Kitaj, a refugee from Vienna. Like the imagery of many of his paintings, information about R. B. Kitaj's early background is in some respects obscure and fragmentary. He has spoken of his sense of a Jewish and Russian, as well as an American, identity and has said that agnosticism and a "compassionate idealistic socialism" were important factors in his upbringing. "My people were enlightened working people," he told Timothy Hyman, who interviewed him for London Magazine (February 1980).
To Hyman's questions about his early experiences of art, Kitaj replied enthusiastically, "As a child, I lived nearby one of the best American museums (Cleveland) and my early years were brightened by that great place." Museums were to him "lighthouses of utopianism and social well-being" from the days of his Depression-stricken boyhood. For about four years he attended children's classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where encouraging teachers taught him to draw from Greek statues.
Kitaj's drawing lessons at the museum ended when, in 1943, the family moved from Cleveland to Troy, New York. Before, during, and after his four years at Troy High School, from 1946 to 1950, he continued to draw. At seventeen he left home to sign on a Norwegian cargo ship stopping at ports in Havana and Mexico. The following year, 1951, he secured American seaman's papers and shipped out on tankers to the Caribbean area. Between voyages, however, he had studied during the 1950-51 semester at the Cooper Union of the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. "My provincial heart was set on learning to paint like Hans Memlinc," Kitaj recalled in his catalogue introduction for an exhibition he organized for the National Gallery in 1980. But under the influence of the emerging school of action painting, the de rigueur technique at Cooper Union called for a house-painter's brush.
"I never did chase down those Flemish secrets." Kitaj went on to say regretfully. Visiting Europe for the first time in 1951, however, he enrolled in Vienna's Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, and with Albert Paris von Gutersloh and Fritz Wotruba as his teachers, he drew everyday from the human figure. At sea he had acquired a habit of eclectic, desultory reading, attracted particularly to English and European literature of the 1920's and 1930's. "Kafka and Joycean exile meant more to me then than the gorgeous Brueghels and Velazquezes in the great Hapsburg collection," he told Hyman in regard to his stay in Vienna. He nevertheless traveled to Paris and other cities to study masterpieces in museums.
On a brief return to New york in 1953, Kitaj joined the National Maritime Union so that he could sail on ships to South American ports to finance further wanderings in Europe and a visit to North Africa. He spent the winter of 1953-54 painting in the Catalan region of Spain. In 1955 he was conscripted into the United States Army, and after completing basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, he served in Fontainebleau, France as an illustrator of the Armed Forces Central Europe.
For years Kitaj had longed to go to Oxford to become what he has called "a kind of scholar-painter." Oxford appealed to him above all other cities because Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound had been there in the early years of the century. With the support of the GI Bill benefits that he claimed upon his release from the army in 1957, he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. "The concept of the work of art as a carrier of meaning far beyond the limited concerns of form alone made a deep impression on Kitaj as a young art student," Marco Livingstone wrote in "Iconology as Theme in the Early Work of R. B. Kitaj" (Burlington Magazine, July 1980). Already familiar with Erwin Panofsky's studies in iconology, Kitaj at Oxford further investigated the value and significance of subject matter in art through his readings of exotically illustrated articles in the Journals of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes and through his meeting with Edgar Wind, an influential professor of fine art at Oxford and a Warburg scholar.
In June 1959 Kitaj received the Oxford University Certificate in Fine Art and the following year entered the Royal College of Art in London for two years of study. His fellow students, like many other young artists in England, were under the spell of the postwar American abstract expressionists, who were absorbed in the process itself of painting and in the painting of pure form, totally devoid of subject matter. But having at Oxford, as Livingstone explained, investigated "the possibility of using inherited meanings of borrowed imagery as the raw materials for his pictures," Kitaj pointed the way, with David Hockney, his friend from registration day, to an alternative-a new kind of figurative painting. In addition to classmates at the Royal College, Kitaj influenced young painters whom he taught at Ealing Technical College and Camberwell School of Art and Crafts from 1961 to 1963. He also tutored intermittently at Slade School of Fine Art in London from the fall of 1963 through the summer of 1967.
Since adolescence Kitaj had been fascinated by surrealism, which, partly because it linked literature with art, remained an inspiration to him. While his use of images of symbolic content owes much to his iconological explorations, in his method of collage making he is indebted to the surrealist device of surprising juxtaposition of disparate elements. The absence of perspective and the diffusion of the viewer's attention throughout the flat surfaces of some of his early pictures may suggest the uncentered, or overall, canvases of the abstract expressionists, but also resemble and encourage a wandering of the mind in the manner of free association celebrated by the surrealists.
Erasmus (1958), which Kitaj regards as the first picture of "any interest" that he painted in England, is a grid design of heads, one of his several paintings whose composition testifies to his admiration for Piet Mondrian. The cartoon-like heads and their arrangement call to mind the work of some American Pop artists. "During the early 1960's Kitaj found himself described as a leader of a hypothetical movement, London Pop," Jerome Tarshis wrote in Artnews (October 1976), "although he had always felt distant from Pop and its sources in mass culture." Many of his early paintings, in fact, such as Pariah (1960), Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody (1961), and Welcome Every Dread Delight (1962), as Livingstone has pointed out, were based on illustrations in the learned journals he had read at Oxford. Equally esoteric were aesthetic intentions and complex mental images inspired by the artist's reading of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. The eclectic character of his work and the deliberately contradictory styles of his early paintings, furthermore, derive in large part from his devotion to Degas, Cezanne, Picasso of the blue period, and Matisse.
A strong link between Kitaj and Pop artists appears, nevertheless, in his use of ready-made graphics. In 1962 he met Cris Prater, a London silkscreen printer with whom he began a collaboration that resulted in the publication in 1970 of several portfolios of silkscreen prints, including Covers for a Small Library after the Life for the Most Part. The fifty screenprints of that series reproduce covers of real and imaginary books and magazines, bearing such titles as the recognizable Coming of Age in Samoa and Partisan Review and the unrecognizable Bub and Sis/Rimes No. 3. A bibliophile to whom books are as essential, he has said, as trees are to a landscape painter, Kitaj once observed, "SOME BOOKS HAVE PICTURES AND SOME PICTURES HAVE BOOKS." And John Ashbery, in an essay for the Hirshhorn exhibition catalogue, noted, "The statement has implications for all his work."
Printed language, literary and other quotations, abounds among the ready-mades, or raw materials, that Kitaj often combines with drawing and painting in his collages. His collage compositions also consist of scraps of photographs, references to films, and other documents of the recent past carrying associations accumulated and transformed by time. So obscure were many of his images that the artist supplied explanatory footnotes for his paintings in his first solo exhibition, at the Marlborough New London Gallery in February-March 1963, which he titled "R. B. Kitaj: Pictures with Commentary, Pictures without Commentary."
In his review of the show in Artnews (March 1963) the British critic John Russell wrote, "I must admit that the most interesting young painter in England today is probably an American, R. B. Kitaj." Along with calling attention to the complexity of Kitaj's sources in regard to both ideas and their organization, he credited the artist with bringing "the subject back into painting" and "history-painting back to life." Two of the pictures of the exhibition that bear out Russell's point are The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960) and Isaac Babel Riding with Budenny (1962), in which Russell observed "an element of straightforward leftwing pamphleteering"-a tendency both early and persistent in Kitaj's work.
For his first one-man show in New York, at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in early 1965, Kitaj also furnished explications of some of the more cryptic subjects of his seventy paintings, drawings, collages, and prints. The artist's method of assembling and arranging heterogeneous images to stimulate a variety of connotations for his viewers offended those critics who deplored "literary" painting. But he had many defenders, among them, Charlotte Willard, who found him a "subtle colorist" and who wrote in the New York Post (February 7, 1965), "For me, at least, he has enlarged the possibilities of the art of our century-and I don't care if it is called Pop."
The New York show displayed one of Kitaj's best-known works, The Ohio Gang (1964), which Alfred H. Barr Jr. promptly purchased for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A gathering of curious, degenerate figures, including a two-faced gangster, a nude gangster's moll, and a bare-breasted prostitute or, perhaps, a depraved wet nurse, The Ohio Gang is a history-painting that "epitomizes an entire era" and that establishes "an air of social portentousness and dire historical significance that is basic to Kitaj's world view," as the American painter Joe Shannon described the picture in an essay for the catalogue of the Hirshhorn show, which he organized.
Another of Kitaj's fragmented and disjointed history-paintings is Walter Lippmann (1966), which borrows its images from various media. The painter identified some of its ingredients: the British film star Robert Donat, wearing a military greatcoat and holding a glass of wine; the pigtailed heroine of Margaret Kennedy's novel The Constant Nymph, climbing a ladder; and, in a small portrait at the edge of the picture, Lippmann himself. In a letter to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, which owns the picture, Kitaj explained that Lippmann represented an "elegant voyeur…as if the explainer or whatever he was in Our Town wrote for the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune."
The Lippmann portrait, though partly concealed, shows Kitaj's gift for capturing likeness. So do his portraits of the baseball players Richard Sisler and Albert Schoendienst, which Kitaj, a baseball fan, painted in 1967, the year after he had visited baseball spring training camps in Florida to make drawings for Sports Illustrated. His portrait of Hockney, David at Berkeley (1968), and those of the poets Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth, and others, result from his year, 1967-68, as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1969, on another visit to California, Kitaj worked at the Lockheed plant in Burbank on Fiberglas sculpture depicting early industrial imagery, a venture into a medium not entirely new to him, inasmuch as he had collaborated for a time in 1962 in England with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Remaining in California through 1970, Kitaj taught for a year as visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
During the 1970's Kitaj produced several of his most effective history-paintings, including The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin) (1972-74), a tribute to the German-Jewish intellectual who committed suicide in 1940 and with whom he shared a love of quotation and of allegory. Another history-painting, If Not, Not (1975-76), was inspired by The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot, who is portrayed in the lower left corner of the painting, wearing eyeglasses and a hearing aid. Among the disconnected, grotesque emblems that crowd the chaotic, Bosch-like landscape is the guardhouse gate at Auschwitz-one of many instances in Kitaj's work that bear on his statement in the Hyman interview: "A central condition for me has been the murder of the European Jews."
While still working on his so-called "epic pictures," by the mid-1970's Kitaj was turning out one-figure paintings like Moresque (1975-76) and The Orientalist (1976-77). His superb draftsmanship had always been a mainstay of his collages, and from his student days he had aspired to finer representation of the human figure. His resumption of drawing from life coincided with an intensified interest in pastels, evidenced in his masterly and dramatic Study for the World's Body and the nude Femme du Peuple I, both of 1974. A visit in 1975 to the Petit Palais in Paris, where he saw an exhibition of Degas' work, inspired him to perfect his technique in the medium of pastels.
"The visual questions that really interested Degas," Kitaj has maintained, as quoted in Newsweek (April 16, 1979), "…were about physiognomy, facial expression, character." That aspect of Degas' art accorded with his own desire to create in his pictures a set of persons with a life beyond the canvas, like characters in a novel. His depictions of the Jew Joe Singer in pastels and oil paintings are directed toward that goal. Fifty of his pastel and charcoal drawings and a few paintings were shown at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in the spring of 1979. Some of the pictures from that exhibition, along with about thirty more recent pastel and charcoal drawings made up his show at the Marlborough Fine Art in London in the fall of 1980. Of that show Michael McNay wrote in the Guardian (October 24, 1980), "It is work striving towards an honesty devoid of fashionable preconditioning. Kitaj is often accused of pretentiousness. The Marlborough exhibition reads more like humility." In his comprehensive retrospective at the Hirshhorn the following year, there was about an equal number of drawings and paintings out of some 100 works selected for display.
In the London Magazine interview Kitaj explained why he intended to confront "impossible" issues in his work: "Some day, when I'm chased limping down a road looking back at a burning city, I want the slight satisfaction that I couldn't make an art that didn't confess human frailty, fear, mediocrity, and the banality of evil as clear presence in art-life." Paradoxically, although he championed "a more social art" and criticized abstract painting for its remoteness from the interests of most people, the obscurities of his collages often made his own art inaccessible. If his pictures are indecipherable, so are the experiences they depict, Kitaj could argue. But in his introduction for the catalogue of a show he organized at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1976, he acknowledged his shortcomings in what he called his "versions of late surrealism" and went on to say, "I hope I am not beyond repair in this matter." His drawing of the human figure and the otherwise greater realism of his pastels, some critics feel, are remarkable advancements in communication.
The Hayward Gallery show, which Kitaj entitled "The Human Clay," consisted of paintings and drawings by British artists that the show's organizer purchased for the Arts Council. Kitaj stirred up much controversy by choosing only works depicting people. Again, in 1980 he was invited to select paintings for the National Gallery's fourth "Artist's Eye" exhibition. As Richard Cork reported in Art in America (February 1981), "He had no hesitation in using [the invitation] to polemicize about an outright and unashamed return to the figurative tradition." One of the fascinating aspects of the show was Kitaj's arrangement of pictures, which, like the interrelationship of images in his collages, illuminated manifold connectedness of themes and forms.
On his first visit to Vienna, R. B. Kitaj met Elsi Roessler, who was also a native of Ohio and whom he married in 1953. Their son, Lemuel Kitaj, was born in 1957, and in 1964 they adopted a daughter, Dominie Lee Kitaj. The death of his wife in 1969 had a disruptive effect on his work for some years. Michael McNay of the Guardian (May 8, 1970) found that Kitaj did not enjoy being interviewed and described him as "a private man, deep-chested and leonine, courteous but reserved, fastidious and slightly oldfashioned in speech." Kitaj has two homes, one in London and the other in Sant Feliu, a Mediterranean port in Catalonia. In 1982 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Kitaj, otra vida en Sant Feliu
R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007), de manera persistente, entrelazó indagaciones políticas con experiencias personales, intereses intelectuales con afectos. Sin duda, las vivencias que atesoró en Sant Feliu de Guíxols, localidad que consideró durante casi 30 años su segundo hogar, contribuyen a modelar una particular visión del mundo que influye en su universo creativo.
El artista desembarca en Sant Feliu con la misma mentalidad que tantos otros creadores norteamericanos, en busca de un emplazamiento aislado, a orillas del plácido Mediterráneo, para alejarse del tumulto y la presión de la gran urbe. Sin embargo, no encuentra únicamente un espacio donde crear sino que el propio lugar, su historia, su cultura, se filtran en ciertas obras.
A continuación analizaré algunas pinturas que el reconocido artista gestó en la localidad catalana, y que evidencian su vinculación. Sin embargo, estas experiencias en Cataluña no solo deposita profundas huellas en las obras realizadas en Sant Feliu, sino también en diversos trabajos ejecutados en Londres.
Kitaj, de origen judío, se educa en un ambiente agnóstico liberal. Algunas amistades de su madre habían luchado en la Brigada Lincoln, así que desde su infancia, España se insiere en su imaginario como aquella tierra legendaria en la que se habían producido heroicos combates contra el fascismo.
En 1953 un tortuoso y largo trayecto en autobús desde Barcelona conduce al artista y a su primera esposa, Elsi Roessler, a Sant Feliu de Guíxols, entonces un apacible pueblo costero, de apariencia aletargada, que en realidad anidaba un importante sustrato antifranquista.
El matrimonio Kitaj alquila Can Bartra, una vivienda señorial en el céntrico Paseo del Mar para pasar el invierno. El pintor, con apenas 21 años, ocupa el día leyendo con fervor, descubre a Baudelaire, profundiza en T.S. Eliot y Ezra Pound, se sumerge en las tradiciones del simbolismo y el surrealismo, cuyo resultado se concreta en un único cuadro alegórico que incluye un perfil del autor de los Cantos, y que en la actualidad está desaparecido. Más adelante Kitaj se lamentaba de haber destinado demasiado tiempo a la lectura en lugar de dedicarse a pintar durante su juventud, pero precisamente esta formación nutrió su singular obra, tan anclada en el universo literario. Y es que su etapa inicial destila la influencia de Eliot y Pound, tanto en el uso creativo de la fragmentación como en la sugestiva inmersión en el pasado, y más adelante incluso estos autores se erigen en motivo de algunas obras. “Los libros son para mi lo que los árboles para un paisajista”, diría luego el pintor.
En esta primera estancia conoce a Josep Vicente Romà (1923-2011), que se convertirá en alcalde socialista de Sant Feliu de Guíxols durante la era democrática. Cuando entablan amistad, Vicente trabaja como escribiente en la fábrica corchotaponera Can Planellas, en la misma calle donde Kitaj comprará una casa en 1972. A Vicente el conocimiento fluido del inglés, fruto de su servicio militar en Algeciras, le permite conversar con el artista acerca de cualquier tema, desde San Juan de la Cruz o Buñuel hasta la Guerra Civil o el catalanismo. Aquel primer viaje marcó profundamente al pintor que en 1998 rememoraba: “Mis mejores recuerdos de España siguen estando junto a la chimenea de nuestra vieja casa, con mi primera mujer y mi amigo José Vicente Roma hablando durante horas contra Franco”.
La visión de Cataluña que Vicente transmite a Kitaj no refleja una recuperación patriótica del esplendor medieval, por el contrario, le descubre una cultura que entrelaza la tradición con el presente de una sociedad heterogénea que no puede expresarse en libertad. Kitaj, que siente especial predilección por los pueblos oprimidos, en seguida comulga con ello.
En ese período también entabla amistad con el poeta y pintor Josep Albertí (1913 – 1993), que luchó del lado republicano durante la Guerra Civil, y luego fue confinado en el duro campo de refugiados de Argelès-sur-Mer.
Durante el resto de la década, Kitaj frecuenta poco Sant Feliu pero a partir de 1962, se abre una nueva etapa para el pintor en la que acude regularmente allí en compañía de su mujer y de sus hijos, en un inicio con Lem y después se les unirá Dominie, alternando sus estancias en casa de la familia Vicente con otros domicilios alquilados.
Indagaciones sobre el anarquismo y la Guerra Civil
A principios de los 60, Kitaj se propone abordar una pintura que reflexione sobre acontecimientos históricos con espíritu crítico. En Sant Feliu realizará una serie de trabajos que ahondaran en figuras relevantes del anarquismo y en la guerra civil española.
Kitaj aboga por una dimensión ética del artista, cuyo objetivo debe consistir en establecer un compromiso con la sociedad. Consciente de la imposibilidad de aportar una verdad absoluta sobre los hechos históricos, Kitaj parte del supuesto que únicamente es factible aproximarse a una fracción de estos, y que su complejidad exige una mirada amplia. Este planteamiento se avanza al interés por los discursos periféricos desarrollado durante el posmodernismo, con ejemplos como las polémicas obras de imagen nebulosa que realizó Gerard Richter en 1988 sobre miembros del grupo terrorista alemán Red Army Faction. O las pinturas alegóricas de atmosfera mesiánica, The Citizen (1981-3) y The Subject (1988-90) en las que Richard Hamilton reflexiona sobre los conflictos en Irlanda del Norte.
En 1960 Kitaj lleva a cabo impactantes lienzos que indagan sobre la historia política de la izquierda moderna como The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, interesante disección del brutal asesinato de la teórica marxista, o The Red Banquet, que discurre acerca de Mijaíl Bakunin y Alexandr Herzen. Un año después elabora Specimen Musings of a Democrat, en la que aparecen referencias a los anarquistas Louise Michel, Dan Chatterton y Mateo Morral, extraídas del libro de W.C. Hart Confessions of ananarchist. La concepción de la obra, sin embargo, se inspira sobre todo en las láminas que acompañaban dos artículos de la historiadora Frances A. Yeats sobre la teoría elemental del filósofo mallorquín Ramon Llull, publicados en el Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Kitaj había adquirido la colección entera durante su estancia en Oxford a finales de los 50, cuando estudiaba en la Ruskin School y, en especial, influido por su relación con el historiador de arte Edgar Wind, impulsor decisivo de la publicación.
Se trata de un cuadro de fuerte tensión experimental, imágenes y textos funcionan como dispositivo asociativo, apelando en cierta manera al Atlas Mnemoysne de Aby Warburg.
Durante estos años, la obra de Kitaj introduce la palabra escrita a través de material impreso o de textos redactados a mano. Su pintura se convierte así en una reflexión sobre el propio medio y exige una respuesta más activa del espectador, siguiendo la estela de experiencias pictóricas como las de Kurt Schwitters y Francis Picabia.
Desde que entablan amistad, R.B. Kitaj y Josep Vicente dialogan constantemente sobre política, ambos comparten una visión idealista del socialismo e intercambian conocimientos sobre el tema: “José Vicente se convirtió en mi hermano mayor (...) Incluso entonces (1953), era el espíritu de esa localidad catalana esperando que la despertaran bruscamente. Su socialismo era tan puro que se derretía en la boca. Caminábamos y hablábamos a lo largo de aquella maravillosa costa desierta hacia Palamós, Cabo Creus, Ullastret, al lujoso S’Agaró. (...)”.
Durante la década de los 60, Kitaj seguía con interés los movimientos de la izquierda en Estados Unidos y le comunicaba las novedades a su amigo: “En América la New Left ahora tiene mucha fuerza, el año que viene iré con la familia a la Universidad de California en Berkeley (San Francisco) como profesor invitado durante un año. (...) Este lugar es el principal foco de disidencia en América y tenemos muchas ganas de ir allí”. En la misma carta cita publicaciones norteamericanas izquierdistas como The Nation o Dissent y recomienda a Vicente autores que reflexionan sobre las causas de la marginalidad, por ejemplo, Michael Harrington, fundador del partido de los Socialistas Democráticos de América (DSA), cuyo libro sobre la pobreza en Estados Unidos influyó decisivamente en Kennedy, o el revolucionario pensador martiniqués Frantz Fanon que analizó la cuestión de la descolonización, asuntos que siempre interesaron a Kitaj.
De la mano de Josep Vicente se sumerge en la realidad catalana y ello le permite construir un discurso más complejo en relación a la Guerra Civil, que incorporará a sus reflexiones sobre episodios significativos de la historia de la izquierda.
Sant Feliu jugó un papel destacado en la Guerra Civil a causa de su movimiento obrero radicalizado por la hegemonía anarco-sindicalista y por muchos años de lucha reivindicativa.
Desde finales del siglo XIX la industria corchotaponera había erigido la localidad ampurdanesa en una ciudad importante. En 1913 se convirtió en la mayor exportadora de productos industriales dentro del conjunto español. Esta realidad conllevó la presencia de organizaciones obreras que tuvieron una incidencia significativa en el tejido social con la creación de sindicatos, cooperativas de producción y de consumo, y sociedades de ayuda mutua. La violenta Semana Trágica, también se deja sentir en Sant Feliu, con el futuro presidente de la Generalitat en el exilio, Josep Irla, como alcalde.
La Primera Guerra Mundial y la competencia de Estado Unidos y Portugal desembocan en una crisis en el sector del corcho que genera un importante desempleo, fortalece el movimiento obrero y aumenta la conflictividad social. La federación local de la CNT, creada 1918, obtiene con rapidez un gran número de afiliados. El semanario Acción Social Obrera, publicado en Sant Feliu de 1919 a 1932, se convierte en portavoz de este convulso período.
En los años 20 la situación mejora pero una década después se deteriora nuevamente a causa de las restricciones de los países importadores y el aumento de las tasas aduaneras. La Guerra Civil agrava la situación que confluye finalmente en la escasez de la posguerra.
Durante los primeros meses del conflicto bélico, la CNT domina el nuevo poder en Sant Feliu y en poblaciones cercanas como Castell d’Aro, los distintos comités se encargan de la defensa y las provisiones. Se adjudican la gestión municipal y económica, se socializa la Compañía de Aguas, la electricidad y el transporte. Como en otras localidades españolas, en Sant Feliu se intenta configurar una nueva estructura económica y social inspirada en el ideal anarquista de una sociedad autogestionada.
Sant Feliu fue de las ciudades catalanas que cosechó más víctimas a causa de los bombardeos, uno de ellos estalló el 13 de agosto de 1937 en el transitado Paseo del Mar, donde Kitaj residiría en 1953.
La ciudad cae el 3 de febrero del 39 bajo las tropas franquistas que en seguida inician las detenciones. Jaume Mestres y Cerafí Bosch i Marquès, el cual estuvo encerrado en diversas ocasiones, fueron algunos de los anarquistas que vivieron esta época convulsa y que se hallaban en Sant Feliu cuando Kitaj apareció.
Josep Vicente conocía a fondo esta realidad. Después de la guerra, los franquistas encarcelaron a su padre, de profesión carabinero, durante tres años y medio. Además, mantenía el contacto con anarquistas de aquel período que, a través suyo, sirvieron de informantes a importantes especialistas de la Guerra Civil como Ronald Fraser y Hugh Thomas, este último introducido por Kitaj.
Aquel verano del 62, el artista se instala en Begur junto a su mujer y su primer hijo en una casa que había encontrado por medio del matrimonio Vicente y de Josep Albertí. Tenían planeado permanecer en ella dos meses, pero pocas semanas después decidieron abandonarla debido a sus malas condiciones. Además la empleada que tenían contratada les sisaba dinero descaradamente. No podían volver a su apartamento de Londres porque lo habían alquilado para costearse las vacaciones así que la familia Vicente les invitó a quedarse en su casa, y el día del traslado, coincidió con una reunión antifranquista. El hogar de los Vicente a menudo se transformaba en punto de encuentro clandestino de políticos que luego fueron decisivos en la democracia como Jordi Pujol o Joan Reventós, entre otros. Sin duda, el artista experimentó personalmente el ambiente subversivo que se tejía a espaldas de Franco.
Kitaj y su familia ocuparon la habitación de Eugeni, entonces el único hijo de Josep Vicente, luego llegaría Joan. El artista pintaba obsesivamente mientras su mujer, sentada en una silla de cuerda, le leía a diario el New York Times así como poesía y ensayo.
Aquel verano de 1962 nacen algunas de las pinturas más significativas de su primera exposición en la galería Marlborough Fine Art de Londres, Pictures with Commentary, Pictures without Commentary, que lo consolida en un lugar decisivo de la escena artística londinense. Kitaj elabora cuidadosamente un catálogo nutrido de referencias para cada obra, en la que se incluyen desde sus propias reflexiones hasta citas de otros autores así como una bibliografía general relacionada con la Guerra Civil. Con ello instaura su personal diálogo entre literatura y pintura que se establecerá como distintivo singular en su producción. Kitaj también introduce una fotografía en la que aparece con su hijo en Sa Conca, entonces una playa solitaria que frecuentaba, testimonio de su estancia estival en Sant Feliu. Y acude a la inauguración de la muestra ataviado con un traje como los que vestía Unamuno, confeccionado por un sastre de la localidad catalana bajo petición del propio Kitaj.
En Sant Feliu, el pintor realiza Interior / Dan Chatterton’s Town House, enteramente dedicada a la figura de Dan Chatterton: “fue un anarquista legendario y Catalunya se erigía como cuna del anarquismo”, comenta el artista. Este libertario inglés, de espíritu enérgico e independiente, vivía sumido en una extrema pobreza y autoeditaba en su casa folletos que luego vendía por su cuenta, destaca Chatterton’s Commune, The Atheistic Comunnistic Scorcher, publicación que elaboró durante años.
Kitaj suele segmentar la superficie pictórica en partes. Ello, se acusa en los trabajos iniciales a través de compartimentos rígidos que acentúan la planitud de la imagen; característica que se mantiene posteriormente en su producción gráfica. A principios de los 60, inicia una nueva etapa en la que se sirve de la arquitectura para crear las divisiones en la tela. Esta obra evidencia la coexistencia de ambas fases.[...]
R.B. Kitaj’s Final Draft
Second Diasporist Manifesto: A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses
Mysticism is what happens when superstition is given a system. But when system and superstition become combined in mystical art — or in writing about such art — the best intentions of both can only suffer. And the artist is revealed as wary of the undefined, lonely for fellowship or God.
R.B. Kitaj was just that artist: as a painter, wary of his own individuality, and so striving for precedent, for identification with aesthetic or school; and as a thinker, theologically suggestible, eager for spiritual transcendence. Kitaj (the distinguished R.B. stood for nothing more than “Ronald Brooks”) was born outside Cleveland in October 1932 and died in Los Angeles this past October, a week before his 75th birthday. He often referred to himself as a “Wandering Jew,” that mythical tormentor of the iconic Christ. Never one to disappoint an archetype, Kitaj spent much of his life abroad, in London.
Kitaj is regarded as the late 20th century’s pre-eminent draftsman, and one of its premier figurative painters, foremost of “The London School,” whose name he coined in a catalog essay for a 1976 retrospective. Many of his figurative London schoolmates were Jewish, too, though their Judaism might be mere literality: Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff among them, the former two refugees from Nazi Germany, all three still living and at work. The most famous of this school was Francis Bacon, and the closest to Kitaj was David Hockney. Both were non-Jews, though homosexual and so requisitely tortured. I note this only in the style of the artist: As individuality failed him as ethos and he, in later life, returned to roots, Kitaj would remake himself into a collector or collagist of fellow Jews, dadaistically dedicating this new book, his last, “To precursor Manifestoists, Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenstock) and Marcel Janco, Jewish founders of DADA.” Elsewhere, Kitaj muses on the sculpture of Richard Serra, observing his importation of industrial techniques and materials into the rarefied gallery space or museum as a form of hybridization: “Yes, I do what Serra does, only our worlds are very different. I think he may be Jewish though, or so I heard.”
Kitaj’s greatest strength as a visual artist is here revealed as his greatest weakness as a writer. Conventional wisdom holds that whatever one might think of the paint applied atop, underneath it Kitaj was always a master at drawing: Almost despite themselves, the skeleton-lines, the lineaments of his figures, were always there, signifying and wondrous. Not so with the prose or poesy: No analogous structure underlies the second and final of Kitaj’s manifesti besides numerology, and a mystical engagement with mortalities — Kitaj’s, and with him that of the late-model radical Jew.
This is from Kitaj’s “First Diasporist Manifesto,” published in 1989:
“Diasporist art is contradictory at its heart, being both internationalist and particularist. It can be inconsistent, which is a major blasphemy against the logic of much art education, because life in Diaspora is often inconsistent and tense; schismatic contradiction animates each day. To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism.”
Throughout his life, Kitaj was searching for a Jewish art not of subject matter but of style. His sense of diasporism transcends kitsch, focusing, as it does, not on communal or canonic representation but on selective, unselfconscious borrowing and collage from what Kitaj — borrowing the idea itself and its terminology — called “HOST KULCHUR,” though what particular Judaic element was to be brought to these cultural collaborations was never quite defined. To be sure, these collagings could be from many different styles and centuries: With Kitaj, Viennese Expressionism is given over to what used to be called “negritude”; Parisian recherché translates to Hollywood glut. In Kitaj’s most brutal canvases (such as those of the “Joe Singer” series, named after the artist’s fictional alter-ego, a Holocaust survivor), Cézanne’s bathers have stripped for a new cleanse — delousing, or murder by gas; in “If Not, Not,” whose composition was based on Giorgione’s “The Tempest” (and is one of twoscore Kitaj images reproduced here, though only in black and white), the gatehouse of Auschwitz appears as if painted by a millennial Giotto.
It’s telling that the quintessentially diasporist style of the “Second” manifesto crudely uproots, or inverts, the development of modern philosophy: While the “First” was written in formal paragraphed prose, its twilight tone that of Nietzsche by way of Walter Benjamin, Kitaj’s “Second” comes from a strange confluence of the Cartesian and Blakean Beat poetry, presenting its text — with the exception of the prologue — in numbered propositions, axioms and lemmas (philosophical points, or mathematical statements). Each of these “verses” — un-rhyming, un-metered — seems to be a sketch for an aphorism, a left-handed jotting or scrapbook quotation, and the whole comprised becomes a quodlibet (quod: “whatever”; libet: “pleases”) of the intellectual and idle.
Here’s where numerology might help: There are 613 commandments in the Torah (according to the Talmud, 365 of them “negative,” 248 “positive,” each of these numbers mystically open to kabbalistic explanation), and Kitaj, earnestly making art from theology even while unmaking theology, too, does that famous number two better. His 614th entry quotes philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment”: “The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another posthumous victory,” to which Kitaj appends: “So be it! Now, paint that!” His 615th and closing entry commands as an epitaph of sorts: “EASEL PAINTINGS ARE NOT IDOLS, so, JEWISH ART IS OK to do without consulting your Rabbi, so do it! It’s good and universal!” Kitaj’s own voice, often lost amid the book’s citations, excels typographically, in underlines, CAPITAL LETTERS and the indiscriminate exclamatory! It’s a wildly American remake of Spinoza’s “Ethics,” which offers its thoughts ordine geometrico demonstrata (“demonstrated in geometrical order”). But the lonely and godless philosopher of Amsterdam is neither alone nor godless. A spirit of homage suffuses “Second”: Its prologue, titled “Taboo Art,” opens with a rewrite of Philip Roth, from the self-fictionalizing “The Counterlife”: “I’ve got Jew on the brain,” Kitaj relates. “Jews are my Tahiti, my Giverny, my DADA, my String Theory, my Lost Horizon. The Jewish Question is my limit-experience, my Romance, my neurosis, my war, my pleasure-principle, my death drive.” Connections abound: Almost every page of this book hosts a diary quote from Roth’s hero, Franz Kafka, whose fleshless initial “K” is shared by the painter-writer, who remarks upon this coincidence or counterfact with humorous insistence.
Many of Kitaj’s models have been literary: “Kafka, Celan, Proust, Freud” (Kitaj’s best prose canvas could be the list). At the end of the greatest Jewish literary century since those that saw the writing of the Psalms, a great Jewish painter was searching for a corollary movement in the visual arts — the only medium of art the Torah proscribes, in the Second Commandment banning the making of graven images. When obsessed, as he was by this commandment that would deny him his talent and trade, Kitaj tended to repeat himself, like the “hermit” or “Old Jewish Painter” in whose image he’d remake his life. Number 285 contains the following admonition:
Study the Shulhan Arukh if there’s time. Published in 1564 in Venice by Rabbi Caro, an exact contemporary of Titian, it allows depiction of people in art.
Earlier, Kitaj has exhorted himself:
Study the SHULHAN ARUKH (1564) by Rabbi Joseph Caro (contemporary of El Greco). In this great code it says it’s OK for artists to do pictures of people in some circumstances, etc., blunting the 2nd Commandment against idolatry.
This sort of repetition might work on the canvas, as symbol or motif (especially in an imaginary stylistic exchange of Caro as painted by the early and ethereal Titian, for Caro as painted by the late and storming Greek), but in prose is lazy. How Kitaj most convincingly contravened the Second Commandment was through another, more nuanced, didactic method — namely, that of exegesis: In the beginning, he painted paintings that had layered overtop of them their own commentary, imaging Babel as palimpsest or scribble:
My Commentaries: As a youthful painter in the late fifties, I sometimes put commentaries right on the pictures themselves, in writing. I believe I was the first painter to do that. 3 inspirations excited me in those days: Eliot’s notes to his Waste Land; the Warburg tradition of iconographic commentary to pictures; some Surrealist practice, such as This is not a pipe. Never stop writing onto some few pictures. God saw that it was good.
Later, Kitaj pursued modesty, or a Jewish humility, and began painting what he called his “small canvases,” as if in an enactment of limitation or tzimtzum, a kabbalist principle whereby God reins in His own power in order to prevent the world — which might be nothing more than divine art — from being destroyed.
Kitaj struggled throughout his life to justify the marginality of his figurative style in an artistic age that hewed to abstraction, and he did this most promisingly through the example of marginality set by Jewish identity in the modern, politically radicalized Diaspora. Such a task was bound to be contradictory if not negating, as it was undertaken not in Judaism’s chosen medium, which is the written word, but in the medium most opposed, through the visual’s inherent sensuality and insistence on representation, to Jewish Law and spirit. He died leaving behind paintings and drawings that his own writings attempt to parse and claim for cult, but fail. Just as the visual and spoken name of God merely represents an ultimately unknowable existence, the agonized pilpul of Kitaj’s prose can only gesture at a fuller but never consummate appreciation of its author’s true and ineffable art.
R.B. Kitaj: Commentary on an Eccentric Jewish Life
It is a pleasure to be here in Berlin for this extraordinary exhibition and a real honor to be able to speak to you this evening. I am humbled too, because everything worth saying about Kitaj and his Jewish life has been said by the contributors to the exhibition catalogue.
I’d like to begin by expressing my thanks to the Jewish Museum and especially to Dr. Eckhart Gillen, the curator of this exhibition and to Cilly Kugelmann, program director of the Museum and moving force behind this symposium.
I must confess to a real poignancy at this moment. It is strange to celebrate the life’s work of R. B. Kitaj, but not to have him with us. His death 5 years ago seems like yesterday, and as I reflect on this great artist and dear friend, I forewarn you that I will be mixing the personal with the more sober analytic.
I first met Kitaj at UCLA, my university, when he came to give a lecture in June 1999. The theme of the lecture was one of his perennial obsessions: “The ‘Jewish Question’ in Art.” The lecture, I must admit, was not an oratorical tour de force. It was long and a bit rambling, two qualities that I hope to avoid tonight. But it was so rich with ideas, so bold and provocative in its insights, that I was left speechless.
From that point until his death in 2007, Kitaj and I were conversation partners, brought together by a shared reading list, set of intellectual heroes, and themes of interest. His mode of thinking was unlike mine. It was explosively visual and unburdened by the disciplinary boundaries or footnotes of the scholar; but for all his wildness, Kitaj’s thinking was deep and wide, as attentive to the text as to the image, which of course drove the London art critics mad, for they insisted that a picture that couldn’t stand alone--without words--was unworthy of attention.
This already pushes me to the first of my main points for the evening: the imperative of commentary in Kitaj’s work. But before we get to Commentary, or more specifically, my Commentary on Kitaj’s practice of Commentary, I’d like to take a step back and declare that my main goal this evening is to explore the eccentric Jewish life that Kitaj led–and to do so in a way that reflected his own proclivities.
Let us begin in the top left, with Ohio, where Ronald Brooks was born in a suburb of Cleveland in 1932. His parents divorced in 1934, and his mother remarried in 1941 to Dr. Walter Kitaj, an Austrian Jew whose last name the young boy assumed. There was no demonstrable Jewish ritual or learning that took place in the home, but the experience of the émigré Central European Jew was very much alive in the household.
Kitaj’s family moved to Troy, New York, when he was a child—and there he went to high school. On completion, he joined the merchant marine and sailed the world—this is the reference to the “High Seas.” Then began his training as an artist, first at Cooper Union in New York, then Vienna at the Akademie der bildenden Künst, and then in London.
I don’t want to reprise his entire life here. What I do want to emphasize is that for much of his early life, from his birth through the beginning of his London experience, there was relatively little access to or engagement with Jewish concerns. Direct engagement with Jewish themes and personalities came in the 1970s and 80s, as Kitaj turned his attention with increasing awareness and intensity to the Jewish question.
And yet, there are some tantalizing adumbrations of his later Jewish obsession, evident already in 1963 with the opening of his first solo show at the Marlborough Gallery in London. That was an intriguing period: the show opened in February, the same month in which a New Yorker article appeared that, as Kitaj later reported, “broke the Jewish Ice for me.” (First Diasporist Manifesto, 88). The article in question was Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial that would form the basis of her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. At that critical moment in his Jewish formation, Kitaj was opening his show at the Marlborough Gallery in London under the title “Pictures with Commentary, pictures without Commentary.”
Why is this title significant? Already at this early stage, Kitaj chose to engage in an act for which he would become both famous and infamous: that is, he placed alongside his paintings written text: witticisms, aphorisms, philosophical and historical meditations, art criticism. He did not give voice at that point to what he would later come to embrace: namely, that he was a link in the long and dynamic chain of the Jewish interpretive tradition.
Nothing could be more integral to the evolution of Judaism the religion than this imperative to engage in commentary. “Hafokh ba ve-hafokh ba di-kula ba,” it reads in the 3rd century Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings embedded in the first major written embodiment of the oral law, the Mishnah: “Turn over the text of the Bible again and again, for all is contained within it.”
This was not a marginal and neglected phenomenon in the history of Judaism, but a central animating impulse. Well before the time of Jesus, Jewish sages engaged in ceaseless commentary on the Bible, as well as on the accompanying Oral Law that lent Judaism its distinctive ritual habits. It is this Oral Law, associated with the Pharisees, which the early Christians, or at least most of them, left behind.
But for Jews, interpreting constituted their very being. The texts that resulted from their interpreting and commenting became, in the famous words of Heine and later George Steiner, “the portable homeland of the Jew.” Indeed, the Mishnah begat the Talmud which begat rabbinic commentaries—and it is these texts that regulated and ordered the lives of Jews, who, from the year 70 AD or CE, had lost sovereignty over their homeland.
With the rise of rabbinic interpreters came dynamism, flexibility, malleability in the interpretive process. It is that set of qualities which Kitaj loved and identified with as a commentator, as he relates in the second of his two Diasporist Manifestos. There he quoted the famous imperative to “turn it over again and again” (369) and then notes: “Fitful commentary waits patiently by some of my pictures as it does in thousands of years of Jewish Commentary.”
Although hardly a rabbi, and surely not an observant Jew, Kitaj boldly and proudly inserted himself into that millennial tradition. Commentary was not mere word play for him; it was constitutive, it defined, animated, and invigorated Jews. And it sustained them, especially throughout their long history in dispersion, which brings us to the second of the five core terms in Kitaj’s eccentric Jewish life: Diaspora.
Diaspora is the Greek term for scattering or dispersion. In Jewish history, it is a somewhat more neutral term than Exile (known in Hebrew as galut), which implies not only a state of physical displacement, but theological estrangement between the Israelites and God.
In Kitaj’s lexicon, it became a term of paramount significance. He saw himself as dwelling, for much of his life, in a state of displacement—as an American in London for nearly forty years, and even in the last decade of his life in Los Angeles. The significance of Diaspora in his life and thought became clear in the year 1988, when he published initially in German his Erstes Manifest des Diasporismus, followed the next year by the English First Diasporist Manifesto.
And in 2007, the year of his death, he published his Second Diasporist Manifesto. So thoroughly did he identify with the concept that he signed his name at the end of the introduction to the second manifesto as “The Diaspora.”
And yet, it is interesting to reflect for a moment on his choice of language in the titles: not “Diaspora Manifesto,” but “Diasporist Manifestos.” The difference is subtle, but significant. It suggests not merely an acknowledgement of physical dispersion, but an ideological commitment to the state of displacement from the homeland.
Why would that be? What is there to venerate and revere in Diasporism? Kitaj offers up those questions repeatedly though never systemically in his manifestoes. Among the features of diasporism as an affirmative path in life and art that he notes in the First Manifesto are:
1) Its ability to be both “internationalist and particularist”.
2) The fact that “People are always saying the meaning in my pictures refuses to be fixed, to be settled, to be stable: that’s Diasporism, which welcomes interesting, creative misreadings.”
3) Its status as “a universal conundrum, a most ancient mystery presence, a secreted reflection upon one’s uneasy world.”
All of these aphoristic definitions point to the dynamic and unstable condition of Diasporism, a condition that was ironically well-suited for artistic and cultural creativity, for it allowed for, and even necessitated, iconoclasm and violation of the established rules. One needn’t be Jewish to be a Diasporist, Kitaj hastened to add, noting that Picasso, Cezanne, and Mondrian—with their ferocious spirit of innovation—all belonged to the tradition.
At the same time, Diasporism was, for Kitaj, the quintessential Jewish condition. It was the condition in which the ceaseless interpretive imperative of the rabbis, as exemplified by the practice of Midrash, was incubated.
It was the condition of that historical figure who so fascinated him: the Marrano—the Iberian converso who, from the fifteenth century, outwardly lived as a Catholic and inwardly as a Jew—or as the well-known German scholar, Carl Gebhardt, famously described him: “Der Marrane ist ein Katholik ohne Glauben und ein Jude ohne Wissen.” The Marrano has been a figure of keen and ongoing fascination to modern Jews, especially German Jews, who recognized themselves in the mirror reflecting the Marrano’s divided identity.
Beyond the Marrano, Diasporism was not only the condition, but the ideoogical predisposition of a whole strain of modern Jewish nationalists, who aspired not principally to return to the homeland, but rather to establish a state-supported cultural preserve in the Diaspora. Figures such as the great historian Simon Dubnow, who lived in Berlin from 1922 to 1933 or the writer and Territorialist Israel Zangwill make appearances in Kitaj’s First Diasporist Manifesto. They were the ideological opponents of Zionists, who hoped for a revived Jewish presence in Erets Yisrael or Palestine.[....]
David N. Myers
— Jewish Museum Berlin