RB Kitaj, Moses Contra Freud, 2005. Oil on canvas, 21.5 x 28 cm (103) © The Estate of RB Kitaj, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London
RB Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 29 October 1932, but spent some forty years, more than half his life, in London. Elected ARA in 1984 (and RA in 1991), he died in Los Angeles last October aged 74.
It’s a measure of Kitaj’s importance as an artist (and of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow Academicians) that he should be remembered here by a tribute taking up the first gallery of the Summer Exhibition.
The display, curated by the art historian Marco Livingstone, certainly makes an impact. Livingstone has chosen ‘to present several distinct moments in Kitaj’s art, beginning with his student work of the early 1960s, with its philosophical debts to Surrealism; to the key 1967 painting Juan de la Cruz, evidence of his political preoccupations and stunning ability to bring together contrasting pictorial languages; to his aesthetic peak in the mid-1970s, in both his oil paintings and the pastels he took up at that time, when he began drawing again from life; to his increasing concern with Jewish themes from the 1980s onwards; and finally to a group of the small paintings he started making in the last few years of his life, in which he found the “old-age” style he had so longed for’.
There can be no doubt about Kitaj’s art-historical importance. During the early 1960s, fresh out of the Royal College of Art and beginning to make a considerable name for himself, he almost single-handedly gave a younger generation of British artists the confidence to turn their backs on ‘pure’, abstract painting in order to tell stories, to shape pictorial narratives that sometimes adopted a point of view and commented on social issues. He always demanded an art that had as much to do with the mind as the eye.