R.B. Kitaj is the most literary of painters. Writers, often Jewish writers, show up in his work – Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka – but more importantly his sensibility has been molded by books. He adores Cezanne (“the greatest painter who ever lived”), Degas and Edward Hopper (“my favorite American painter”), and possesses a comprehensive knowledge of Western art, but his literary culture is unusually broad and central to his practice. He seems to know more about books than most writers will ever know about painting.
The other evening I read Kitaj in the Aura of Cezanne and Other Masters, a book published in connection with an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery in London, in 2001-2002, that includes a conversation between Kitaj and Colin Wiggins, and an essay, “The Jew Etc.,” by Anthony Rudolf.
In the interview, Kitaj cites and shows familiarity with the writers mentioned above and, among others, Balzac, Proust, Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan, Baudelaire and Gershom Scholem. Kitaj, who is Jewish, refers to Ezra Pound as “my favorite anti-Semite.” In his essay, Rudolf says, “Where Kitaj differs from his peers, even other Jewish ones….is in the public nature of his love of the written word.”
Kitaj was born in 1932 in my home town, Cleveland, lived most of his life in London, and now lives in Los Angeles. In 1988, during a showing of Cezanne’s early work at the Royal Academy, he often to make sketches from the master’s paintings:
“Each morning I would go to my dear old RA between 8 and 9 a.m. in the empty rooms and isolate one character or bit-player from Cezanne’s dramas, to draw out of its drama or melodrama. I’ve always envied novelists who can create characters who may never have existed and I think it was in that spirit that I would extract these little people. Like a novelist, Cezanne would re-introduce certain characters, often his bald self, in subsequent pictures. Later, in his Bathers, the same players would appear in picture after picture – the Strider, the River-God, the Temptress, the Squatter, the Hermit, the Wader, the Baptist and so on – like a repertory company. And, over many years, I’ve created my own repertory company of found image-people who please me, about a dozen or so, inspired by Cezanne’s habit and by John Ford’s habitual players.”
This passage delights me. I admire Kitaj’s scavenging magpie spirit, looking anywhere for the raw stuff of his paintings and then mixing it up according to his own needs and inspirations. I think this is an American aesthetic, impure and pragmatic, common to Whitman (opera, phrenology, Emerson), jazz (show tunes, blues, European classical music), and Orson Welles (German expressionism, radio, Shakespeare). I love the fullness of Kitaj’s pictures, the way they swarm with detail, life, story, people and ideas. They remind me of overflowing novels by Dickens and Bellow, and of John Ford’s Westerns with his reliable repertory troupe of Ward Bond, Donald Meek and others, hopping from picture to picture.