Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Early Period Purchase


R. B. Kitaj 1932 – 2007   NA RA

1. Blue Cloak


2.  Kitaj


3.  Kitaj


4.  If Not, Not  

This is probably Kitaj's best-known and most complex work. The artist stated that the painting related to T S Eliot's poem 'The Waste Land'; the poet is depicted at the bottom left, wearing a hearing aid. The building in the top left corner is the gatehouse to Auschwitz. Below it lies a scene of cultural disintegration and moral collapse. The stagnant water, the dead and blackened trees, and the books scattered about the landscape, speak of death and destruction. A Matisse bust (coincidentally a variant of the one owned by the SNGMA) lies broken in the centre foreground.

The small figure of the man in bed (middle left), holding a baby, is a self-portrait.

SNGMA Caption

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R. B. Kitaj 1932 – 2007   NA RA

1.   Man in Blue Cloak. Dated 1982. Signed Kitaj. (572 x 390mm). Charcoal and pastel on fawn paper.  Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art, London. Grant from Local Museums Purchase Fund.


2.  R B Kitaj in New York, 1985. Photograph: ©Christopher Felver/Corbis.


3.   R B Kitaj, 2003.  Photograph by ©Paul O'Connora


4. If Not, Not (1975 - 1976),  Ronald Brooks Kitaj 1932 – 2007.  Oil and black chalk on canvas Size 152.40 x 152.40 cm (framed: 1709 x 1705 x 96 mm) Purchased 1976.  Acc. No. GMA 1585


This drawing by Kitaj was the first figurative work acquired for the collection.  It was acquired from Marlborough Fine Art at the same time as the purchase of the Hoyland abstract paining from Waddington Galleries.

Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where his Jewish heritage and early migratory experiences of life were to have a significant bearing on his practice as an artist. He first studied art at the Cooper Union, New York, then in Vienna. After service with the US Army, he took advantage of provisions in the GI Bill to settle in England, continuing his art education at Oxford and at the Royal College of Art, London. At a time when abstract art was prevalent, Kitaj worked figuratively, developing a personal artistic language derived from pictorial and literary sources. He became associated with the loose grouping of artists called the 'School of London', who were concerned with the human form.

As a mature student at the Royal College of Art in London, his broad cultural interests in history, politics, literature and poetry were a significant influence on his fellow students, especially David Hockney. From 1970, his paintings, drawings and prints concentrated on the human form.  Drawing on his wide reading and preoccupation with Jewish history and identity, his works have been described as 'allegorical and depictive, traditional and thoroughly modernist'. His importance has been recognised by three international retrospective exhibitions organised in 1981, 1994 and 1998.

At the time of this purchase, Kitaj was largely unknown in Scotland although there was one large narrative work. 'If Not, Not' (1975–1976), in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. A Guardian writer described in detail a tapestry based on this work:

'In the expansive entrance hall of the British Library in London hangs a tapestry based on RB Kitaj's painting If Not, Not . It is vast. It is also quite beautiful. Fierce colours fizz as scholars and students walk by. But its content is far from reassuring. Palm trees are silhouetted in blue against a lurid orange, yellow and violet sky; they suggest not a tropical paradise but the Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now. You can almost hear the helicopters and the opening guitar notes of The End by The Doors. Above the palm trees looms something worse: the deadly architecture of Auschwitz.

In the woven picture, pastoral glimpses of bathers and famous 20th-century intellectuals are folded into a broken and chaotic landscape. It's like a hellish remake of Matisse's Bonheur de Vivre. Images of pleasure, of modernism as escape, jar against visions of modernity as nightmare. A powerful work of art, this decoration is derived meticulously from Kitaj's painting. It also serves as a monument to the artist, who killed himself in 2007 after his later years were blighted by bad reviews in the British press.

I can't help but be angry at those critics. Why destroy an artist so cruelly? What was gained? Kitaj stood for a sense of history, a belief in drawing and an intelligent modernism. Are those such terrible qualities in an artist?

If Not, Not will be remembered when Kitaj's bad reviews, and their authors, are long forgotten. Stories like this make me wonder what my profession is actually for.'

When considering possible acquisitions during a London visit, is unlikely that the selector set out to acquire a specific work by this artist or a work in this style or subject. However. it was an inspired decision arising from a chance encounter with the work within the gallery space.   The exact nature of the subject and the location are unknown although it is believed that Kitaj may have been in Paris at the time this drawing was completed.

Work identified and championed by Keith Macdonald.

[Text based on material published by The British Council (Venice Bienanale records), The Guardian, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art publications and personal recollections]


R. B. Kitaj 1932 – 2007

Born in 1932 at Chagrin Falls near Cleveland, Ohio, of Jewish parents.  His father was Hungarian and his mother, although born in America, came from a Russian family.  The couple divorced soon after his birth.   His mother, Jeanne Brooks, remarried in 1941, to Dr. Walter Kitaj, a Viennese refugee research chemist, and Ronald took his surname.

Kitaj studied at the Cooper Union Institute in New York in 1950-1 and 1952.  He was a student at the Academy of Fine Art, Vienna in 1951.

As a merchant seaman in the early 1950s he visited Havana, Mexico and South America. He attended the Ruskin School, Oxford in 1958-9, and the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1961. It was at the Royal College that he met David Hockney, who became a close friend.

Now settled in England, Kitaj taught at the Ealing Art College, the Camberwell School of Art and the Slade School of Art during the 1960's. His first one-man exhibition was held at Marlborough Fine Art, London in 1963. He taught at the University of California Berkeley in 1967-8 and the University of California Los Angeles in 1970-1. In 1972 he returned to London.

Kitaj's preference for figuration provided a salutary alternative to the then prevailing influence of American abstraction. His ability to draw on a wide variety of historical and contemporary subjects and his adroit mix of drawing and painting provided a model for a new form of picture-making.

In 1976 Kitaj selected for the Arts Council of Great Britain a group of British works, connected by a common theme, which formed the core of an exhibition called The Human Clay (an allusion to a line by W. H. Auden), The show included works by Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff, Moore, Hodgkin, Hockney, Kitaj himself, and others. Kitaj's essay for the catalogue, in which he proposed the idea of a School of London, became one of the key art historical texts of the period.

He selected paintings for an exhibition, 'The Artist's Eye', at the National Gallery, London in 1980. In 1981 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member and became a full Academician in 1984.

His 1983 marriage to the American artist Sandra Fisher (1947-94) is celebrated in his paintings Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (Tate Gallery) and The Wedding (Tate Gallery).

In 1989 he published the First Diasporist Manifesto, the longest and most impassioned of his many texts discussing the Jewish dimension in his art and thought. In this book he analysed his own alienation, and how this contributed to his art. His book contained the remark: 'The Diasporist lives and paints in two or more societies at once.'  And he added: 'You don't have to be a Jew to be a Diasporist.'

His various honours include election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982. In 1985 he became the first American since Sargent to be elected to the Royal Academy.

In 1995 he was awarded the Golden Lion for painting (La Biennale di Venezia International Prize).

Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held, including shows at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC and tour 1981-2; and the Tate Gallery, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1994-5. Critical reviews in London were almost universally negative with the British press, notably Brian Sewell and Andrew Graham Dixon, savagely attacked the Tate exhibition, calling Kitaj a pretentious poseur who engaged in name dropping. Kitaj took the criticism very personally, declaring that ;anti-intellectualism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism' had fuelled the vitriol.

The 'Tate War' and Sandra's death became a central themes for his later works: he often depicted himself and his deceased wife as angels. In Los Angeles No. 22 (Painting-Drawing) the beautiful young (and naked) girl records the shadow of her aged lover (on whose lap she sits) in a pose directly taken from the Scots Grand Tourist David Allan's Origin of Painting. The latter was included by Ernst Gombrich in his 1995 National Gallery exhibition (and catalogue) on Shadows so that Kitaj would have seen it two years before he left England for ever.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1997,  He died in 2007.

[Text based on material published by The British Council (Venice Bienanale records), Tate Gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, The Guardian and the Independent with personal recollections.]


 

This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey , and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

Top  ~     ~ R B Kitaj Guardian: Jonathan Jones Art Blog 2010  ~  RB Kitaj: an obsession with revenge (The Guardian 2013)Obituary, The Observer

Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016