Beautiful Obsessions

Like a tourist’s lost luggage, R.B. Kitaj: Obsessions, a retrospective which originated at the Jewish Museum Berlin, has arrived in England with its paintings strewn between two destinations: the Jewish Museum London and Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (23 Feb -16 June 2013). In the Jewish Museum London, the exhibition is subtitled “The Art of Identity”, while the works shown at Pallant House appear under the title “Analyst for Our Time”. This unusual, bifurcated retrospective — the first since Kitaj’s death in 2007 — revives lingering questions about his “Diasporist” project and his artistic legacy, especially in Britain.

The collective title of the exhibition, Obsessions, passes over the long period in Kitaj’s artistic career, from the early 60s to the early 90s, when he was a leading voice among the “School of London”, which included painters such as David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Lucian Freud, whose reputations have now eclipsed his own. Instead, Obsessions conjures memories of the tragedy and tumult of Kitaj’s final years.

Kitaj’s halcyon days screeched to halt with his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, which quickly turned from crowning triumph to critical maelstrom. As savage reviews swirled in the press, Kitaj’s wife Sandra Fisher died suddenly of an aneurysm. Convinced that critics had killed her, Kitaj crafted a narrative to which he clung desperately for the next dozen years. Fisher was a martyr in his self-proclaimed “Tate War”, and it was up to him to avenge her death. As Kitaj’s anger escalated he became convinced that the stakes were not merely the defence of Fisher’s honour, or the revival of his own artistic reputation, but a holy war against English antisemitism, which he believed was at the root of his fall from grace. Britain, he was convinced, had betrayed him, and in 1997 he finalised his divorce with his adopted country, departing permanently for California. Barely disguising his antipathy, he declared with acid wit, “The thing I’ll miss most about England is Holland.”

Kitaj’s stay in the “generous Diaspora” of Los Angeles, as he called it, did little to quell his fury. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the vitriol of Kitaj’s critics became richer and more pungent with age. Reviewing Kitaj’s 2001 exhibition at the National Gallery, In the Aura of Cezanne and Other Masters, Brian Sewell cackled at the idea that he or fellow critics owed Kitaj an apology for their earlier castigations.” [A]ny embarrassment I feel,” fumed Sewell, “is on behalf of the institutions that nourish the vanity of this now preposterous obsessive personality, with his rant and bombast about the Jewish Question…it is impossible not to be struck by [the exhibition’s] childishness, its screaming-tantrum quality.” Keen to return the favor, Kitaj told me that should I ever cross paths with Sewell I must pledge to deliver a personal message:” F*** off.”

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The curators of the Kitaj retrospective have picked up on this rhetoric of “obsession”, a term familiar both to Kitaj’s supporters and to his detractors. Of course, while Sewell found this quality “preposterous”, Kitaj’s proponents are inclined to follow the artist’s belief in the power of “beautiful obsessions”. Either way, the die has been cast: Kitaj seems set to be remembered, at least in the near future, as a cantankerous hermit raging against adversaries, both real and imagined. Without a doubt, this is a memorable, enticing trope, which links Kitaj into an estimable genealogy of “mad” artists ranging from Caravaggio to Vincent Van Gogh.

The advantage of this approach is that it turns the rage and bitterness of Kitaj’s later years — a source of pity and embarrassment even to some of his staunchest allies — into a strength, or at least a draw at the ticket office. And while this is far better than obsolescence, I cannot help feeling a bit anxious about this appellation. For one, it dances along a dubious line, at risk of veering into stereotypes of the neurasthenic Jew. My greater reservation, however, is that remembering Kitaj in this way risks obscuring the more subtle — and indeed more fundamental — aspects of both his personality and his art.

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