Should I feel abashed that I’d never heard of R.B. Kitaj before today, when I stumbled on an exhibit about him at Amsterdam’s Jewish History Museum? He was an American who lived mostly in England, making friends with David Hockney, Lucien Freud and other figurative artists whom he dubbed the London School (not original, but it stuck). This exhibit, titled “Unpacking My Library“, shows his paintings, and prints derived from the covers of books which have inspired him. What’s he doing in Amsterdam, and at this museum? Sure, he visited the city a number of times and was influenced by Rembrandt and Van Gogh — but who hasn’t been? The answer lies in his origins and what he made of them.
R. B. Kitaj was brought up in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio. His own father disappeared, and his mother remarried an Austrian Jewish refugee who influenced Kitaj deeply. He went to Vienna to art school, and visited his stepfather’s village. For the first time, he realized that it didn’t matter whether he felt Jewish or not; he would have been deported and murdered by the Nazis had he been there at the time. Kitaj then wrestled with Jewish identity, particularly as an artist attempting to express what he called “the condition of Jewishness.” He read widely and found soulmates among authors, particularly Hannah Arendt, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin.
When Kitaj and artist Sandra Fisher married, they chose an orthodox synagogue ceremony, surely a statement of how far he had moved from his secular roots. The event is pictured in one of Kitaj’s most striking paintings from the exhibit, although he never considered it fully finished.
As a person, Kitaj faced some of the worst trials a human being could go through. Despite numerous accolades (the Royal Academy, prestigious exhibits), his life retrospective at the Tate Gallery was reviled viciously and personally by critics. Soon thereafter his second wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, died of a brain aneurism. (His first wife had also died young, of suicide.) Deep in the study of Jewish mysticism, Kitaj found Sandra again by painting the two of them together again and again. He moved to Los Angeles and lived out his life near his children, reading and working until the end.
Through all this, books were great friends, alongside some of the leading artists and writers of his time. Kitaj lived with Parkinson’s for a few years, but ultimately took his own life in 2007. He did write two “Diasporist Manifestos” exploring the question of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, particularly for an artist. Kitaj said, “Diasporism is my mode. It is the way I do my pictures. If they mirror my life, these pictures betray confused patterns.”
The painting to your right, The Jewish Rider, uses a Rembrandt painting of The Polish Rider as a model, and shows a Jewish man who is reading and traveling through the landscape of postwar Europe, with a conductor holding an upraised whip in the background. This disquieting image comes as close as anything to expressing Kitaj’s ambivalent view of the Jewish artist in our time.