‘However British you may be,’ said the American Henry James to a friend in 1914, ‘I am more British still.’ One of the abiding inventions of Modernism is the notion that one’s own heritage is largely fungible, that the present (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) modifies the past, and vice-versa. The histrionically titled ‘Obsessions’, the first major retrospective of American-born, Jewish painter R.B. Kitaj in over a decade, suggests that canons are pathos-driven acts of ingratiation and self-insertion. Heritage – as the numerous historical figures in Kitaj’s paintings and collages seem to say to us – is not passively accepted, but rather obsessively assembled, rehashed, cut-and-pasted.
This major exhibition of Kitaj’s work proceeds thematically and historically. Stretching out over 11 rooms of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, and with about 130 pieces, the show fastidiously traces Kitaj’s stylistic development: his early tableau-style collages; his disfigured, iconographic paintings (of Superman, David Hockney, Robert Creeley and Walter Benjamin); his late prints of favourite book covers; and the final, often vengeful works made before his suicide at the age of 74 in 2007. If the show’s categorical organization is sometimes didactic (one room is titled ‘The Library as a Diasporic Home’), then we remember that the artist had a pedantic streak, too. The earliest work on view, Erasmus Variations (1958) – made the year he moved to England – is a loose grid of nine variations on Erasmus’s face. Expressive yet typological, the Renaissance humanist is rendered in one square as a grotesque caricature, in another as a memento mori, as a black smiling face, and then symbolically as a bouquet of smudged flowers.
Diaspora is Kitaj’s theme, and his self-chosen curse. He was drawn to people, especially Jewish figures like Franz Kafka or Aby Warburg, who were – as he saw it – the sore thumbs of intellectual culture. While studying at Oxford, Kitaj encountered Warburg’s iconographic, anachronistic approach to art history. One sees parallels between Kitaj’s early painting-collages – where, say, a sketch after Goya on lined paper is pasted on a fragmented depiction of the Spanish Civil War – and the art-historical panels in Warburg’s ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’ (1924–29). From Warburg, Kitaj learned to take history by the reins, reassembling it systematically yet associatively. In the portrait Warburg as Maenad (1961–2), Kitaj typologizes the great typologizer, who is pink and monochrome like one of Matisse’s dancers, albeit with a square head (like a book or a picture cut-out). World history becomes a tableau, novelistically peopled, in Kennst du Das Land? (Do You Know the Land?, 1962), by toy soldiers or characters. The resulting effect, in a work like If Not, Not (1975–6), which combines idyllic figures from Paul Gauguin with post-apocalyptic, orange visuals reminiscent of Fauvism, is jarring (particularly since it dates from the age of Agent Orange).
Pleasure is derived, in viewing Kitaj’s work, at those moments where idiosyncrasy and bizarreness chafe against the artist’s own straight-faced attempts at self-inscription and categorization. In the section ‘Character Types’, which highlights Kitaj’s thematic figurae (‘Jew’, ‘Orientalist’, ‘Superman’), type is frequently overcome by the erratic: in Batman (1973), the Dark Knight is rendered, clad in a Napoleonic overcoat, in a duck-like pose under an air vent. Though Kitaj became associated with Pop, his works, like those of Richard Hamilton (who he was influenced by), are most interesting when they break free from the typologies they impose on themselves.
In The Red Banquet (1960), the historical setting is an 1854 dinner at the American consulate in London. Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Join or Die’ (1754) – an instigative political cartoon of a snake, severed into eight parts, representing the former United States colonies – is literally pasted on the belly of a painted anarchist; four others, including the reactionaries Mikhail Bakunin and Alexander Herzen, are painted in disgorged swaths of colour, sometimes without bodies. All are set in a building inspired by a house at Garches designed by Le Corbusier. We know all this because Kitaj has inserted a handwritten commentary on paper and pasted it into the bottom-left corner of the painting.
Sometimes self-commentary or fastidious self-categorization can have unintended comic effects (as in, say, the long-winded prefaces to certain 19th-century novels); in Kitaj’s case, this occurs when he embarks on a straight-faced historical rendering, but even his explanation belies an eccentric and lovely expressionism. This view of history, in which the collective is subjectively reassembled, can also come off as tasteless, egotistical or pretentious. An entire room in ‘Obsessions’ is given to the critical mudslinging elicited by Kitaj’s Tate retrospective in 1994, which was panned by critics for those very reasons. While the ‘Tate War’ was decisive for Kitaj – he moved to California shortly after; like Keats, ‘snuffed out by an Article’ – it also reaffirmed his general theme of the artist as a wandering Jew, as a ‘double Diasporist’. The expertise of ‘Obsessions’ is that it proceeds historically – neither heroically nor critically – while articulating Kitaj’s own revisionist, and slightly defeatist, historical stance.
‘Me, me, me,’ wrote one reviewer about the Tate show. Yet doesn’t Kitaj know well the ostentatiousness of his own works, winking back at us cheekily in self-knowing narcissism? The real theme of hagiographic works such as Unpacking My Library (1990–91) – a self-portrait as Walter Benjamin – is the artist’s self-identification with an idolized coterie. One could blame Kitaj for a lack of inventiveness in his selection of idols, but hardly for their depiction. In the violent, agonistic painting The Killer Critic Assassinated by his Widower, Even (1997) – Kitaj’s answer to the critics of his Tate retrospective – he scribbled, in cursive, Eliot’s line that ‘art is the escape from personality’. The ‘from’, however, is marked out with an ‘X’ and corrected: ‘art is the escape to personality’. For Kitaj, these personalities were manifold, roving, projecting. In the smallish Self-Portrait (2004) – one of many in the show – modelled after Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as Zeuxis (1663), a hobbled Kitaj glares out at us in an LA Dodgers hat and yellow, Jerry Garcia-style glasses, looking equal parts prophetic, maniacal and – yes – homeless.