Eight months after he killed himself, R B Kitaj is the star of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition
In 1994, the Tate Gallery in London mounted a major retrospective of the work of R B Kitaj. For the artist, life would never be the same again. Such was the savagery of the reviews that Kitaj blamed the critics for the death of his wife, Sandra Fisher, of a brain aneurysm shortly after the exhibition closed. In disgust he left Britain, his home for 30 years, and returned to his native United States, vowing that he would not set foot here ever again.
Fourteen years on, and his paintings are once more on show at a major London gallery, the Royal Academy, as an integral part of its Summer Exhibition. This time, the critics have been kinder. Too late for Kitaj, perhaps — he died in October 2007, aged 74.
The RA show is a memorial and tribute to the artist, who was elected a Royal Academician in 1985, the first American since John Singer Sargent to receive this honour. Twenty-nine paintings and works on paper are on display, curated by art expert and author Marco Livingstone.
Livingstone says that Kitaj enjoyed being a Royal Academician: “He liked being part of that feeling of tradition and history, and being one of the very few Americans ever elected was an honour for him. He liked being seen in this context. It is interesting that, in those years that he did not want to exhibit in England, this was the one place he showed.”
Indeed, shortly before he returned to the United States, he displayed a painting called The Critic Kills at the Royal Academy, showing clearly whom he blamed for the death of his wife.
After moving to Los Angeles, he never returned to London, as Livingstone explains: “The only time he came back was when he changed planes here on the way to a retrospective in Madrid. He did not even want to come in to see friends. He just developed an absolute loathing of the place, which is terribly sad considering that this was where he made his life. He let one small group of critics completely dominate his feelings about the country. He should have been a little more balanced about how he felt about England and not felt that everyone was against him.”
For the RA show, Livingstone has chosen 29 of Kitaj’s works, ranging from a painting made when he was still a student to a group of small, late paintings done in the two years leading up to his death.
Included is a large oil painting called The Jewish Rider which shows philosopher Michael Podro on a train, a modern representation of the Wandering Jew. Livingstone says: “This represents the themes that became so important to him of the Holocaust and the state of the Jews in the 20th century which became the all absorbing subject for his art for the last 20 years.”
Another significant work is Death’s Door. Although it was not reported at the time of his death, it is now known that Kitaj committed suicide. “When I first saw this painting,” says Livingstone, “I thought it was Kitaj being Kitaj and complaining about his ailments. He was always saying he was an old man, which people used to tease him about.
“What we did not realise then was just what his mental state was and that all the death imagery in these paintings was actually quite indicative of his state of mind.
“He had the beginning of Parkinson’s disease and, for an artist, that is a terrible thing. It is impossible to know what was in his mind, but I think he never really recovered from his wife’s death.”
The display also includes some pastels and drawings, images which Livingstone describes as “among the most beautiful works on paper made in the last half-century”.
The Summer Exhibition continues at the Royal Academy of Arts until August 17. www.royalacademy.org.uk