Burning Questioning…

R.B.Kitaj: Obsessions at the Jewish Museum, London

This diminutive exhibition charts the successes of the American (“adopted” English) painter Ronald Brooks Kitaj. Almost more tantalising than the works themselves is the melancholic life story of the artist, at times you might feel your heart ache reading the accompanying exhibition text. This is clearly a man of the ilk of creatives for whom life and art trod a similar, worn path.

Born to non-practising Jewish parents, Kitaj wasn’t raised into the faith that shaped the key questions that defined his later life. The Jewish Museum have, naturally, drawn emphasis on the symbolism and religious imagery in Kitaj’s work, whilst contextualising his difficult relationship with his faith by biographical examples of crisis. We hear how his father abandoned his mother while he was a small child, how he led a migratory lifestyle in his late teens and lost his first wife to suicide when he was just 36.

Studying art in Vienna, New York and Oxford his style was crazy colourful figurative, depicting scenes and characters in an almost collage effect. The question of his Jewish identity, pulled up from his roots, and political murmurings resonated in his work. Throughout the 1980s Kitaj enjoyed solid success, and had expectations beyond the bad press and criticism which formed the result of his second retrospective at Tate in 1994. When his partner of 23 years and wife of 11, Sandra Fisher, died from a brain aneurysm just after the opening he became distraught and distorted by grief.

Marred by tragedy, left broken and disillusioned by the loss of his second wife, Kitaj left the country he had called home for many years in a flurry of rage and bitter resentment. He moved back to the States and his work took the brunt of his attitude and carried it forth into the world. Blaming Tate and the negative reviews for causing the unexpected death of Sandra he pulled inwards into himself and his work. Decay and destruction, the feebleness of the human body and spirit became repeated themes in his paintings. Unable to recover from this latest setback Kitaj abandoned his own life in 2007, asphyxiating himself with a plastic bag.

You won’t leave this exhibition buoyantly uplifted or full with joie de vivre. Inside the sleek white lofty interior of the gallery the vibrant paintings sing, they burst to life. The story they have to tell, however, mirrors the sad tale described above. There is much discomfort: mismatching colours sit next to each other jarringly, people and objects are jammed into the painting plane like commuters on a tube, everything sits at odds with its surroundings. In a self-portrait the bed appears as a vertical, the dark shrunken surface of Kitaj’s skull receding into the red patterned pillow, which clashes with sickly yellow floral of the bedcover. The perspective is often multi-faceted and disorientating.

So, don’t come to the Jewish Museum looking for a simple life-affirming fix of bold, wonderful paintings. This is a gutsy selection of works which illustrates the difficult nature of love, faith and man in decay. If you like what you see you can catch the train to Chichester to catch the other half of Obsessions at the Pallant House Gallery. Even the exhibition, it seems, has a split identity.

R.B.Kitaj, The Wedding (1989-93)

R.B.Kitaj, The Wedding (1989-93)

Curated by Dr Eckhart Gillen. On display until 16th June 2013.


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