Dulwich Artist in Residence - R B Kitaj (1932-2007)
By Brian Green
Ronald Brooks Kitaj became, in 1994, one of the most controversial of modern artists when he received scathing reviews of the retrospective exhibition of his work at the Tate and when he was at the height of his career. So disturbed was he by the critics’ reaction to the exhibition that he placed the blame on them for the death of his beloved wife, the artist Sandra Fisher who suffered a fatal brain aneurysm shortly after. “My enemies intended to hurt me and they got her instead” he told the Guardian. In 1997 Kitaj took revenge by producing a work entitled “The Killer Critic Assinated by his Widower, Even”. That same year Kitaj left Britain permanently and settled in Los Angeles, where he died in 2007.
R B, as he was widely known, was born in 1932 in Chagrin Falls near Cleveland, Ohio. His Hungarian father left the family home soon after the birth and Kitaj took his mother’s maiden name, Brooks as his middle name and that of his step-father, with whom he was very close, for his surname. Both Dr Walter Kitaj and Jeanne Brooks were Jews but professed atheism. Although R B also grew up as an atheist he would, in later life increasingly identfy himself with his Jewishness and especially Jewish culture.
In his late teens he had a spell as a merchant seaman, sailing on a Norwegian freighter to Mexico and Cuba. The presence of his step-mother, a Holocast survivor, in New York might explain his subsequent admission to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York from 1950-51. In 1951 he left the USA to study at the Academy of Fine Art, Vienna, where he remained until 1954. This period in Vienna would almost certainly lead to a number of connections which would deliver Kitaj to Dulwich in 1959. However, in 1956 he was required to perform two years of military service in the US Army and was drafted to the US Army of Occupation Central Europe at the Allied Forces Central Europe HQ .
Somehow Kitaj the soldier managed to become simaultaneously Kiitaj the art student because between 1957-1959 he became an undergraduate at the Ruskin School of Drawing, University of Oxford on a grant made under the GI bill of rights. These would be his most formative years as he studied under the charismatic Professor of Fine Art, Edgar Wind. In his unpublished ‘Confessions’, he wrote: Wind led me to his master, Warburg, who died semi-mad in 1929, and Warburg led me to his legacy and to his legatees – Panofsky, Saxl, Bing, Wittkower, Otto Pacht, the younger Gombrich and all the rest” (1)
In 1959 R B won a place at the Royal College of Art and he and his wife Elsi Roessler (they married in 1953) and their infant son Lem (now the screenwriter Lem Dobbs) moved from Oxford to Dulwich where they first settled in 27 Pickwick Road. With teaching posts at Camberwell and the Slade and following the success in 1963 of his first Marlborough Gallery exhibition at which John Rothenstein bought Isaac Babel riding with Budyonny for the Tate, the family was able to move to 131 Burbage Road with its views across playing fields and trees.
Among the pictures exhibited in London in 1963, R.B. Kitaj presented “The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg” as a historical painting. The canvas doesn’t show the murder itself – as the title suggests – but the moment in which the dead body is thrown into the water. The corpse seems to float in the centre of the painting. In the upper half, the figures of Germania and Count Helmuth von Moltke allude to the historical context of the murder: a social climate that was nationalistic, with a military influence, which started with the founding of the German Empire. The monuments at the left and lower part of the painting are symbolic of the historical appreciation for the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg.(2)
In the right corner of the painting, Kitaj placed a note in which he explains the sources of the images he used and quotes a publication on Rosa Luxemburg. It was the over-use of this conceit which would eventually lead to the confrontation of 1994.
"My Rosa Luxemburg painting was not as radical as she was, but radical enough for a student in an art college. Although Rosa was of course, a Communist I never was. All my life I've been an American Democrat of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Clinton varieties. It's just that Jewish cultural life with all its disasters, brilliance, learning, evasions and daring has conducted me and my art like an excited zombie or Golem stumbling into real trouble, like my Jews so often do.
My first show and its catalogue was a kind of first shot across the bows of painterly convention, as befits a young radical artist. Rosa, Popper, Wind, Warburg, Isaac Babel, Gertrud Bing, Walter Kaufman, Karl Marx, Kafka, and other Jewish ghosts haunted my show and are named in my catalogue in a youthful feeding frenzy. Most of the critics treated me like a painter version of T. S. Eliot and even Ezra Pound. No one mentioned the J-word. Not even me. I was on the verge of it though, but like almost all Jewish artists, I wanted to appeal to a universal standard." (3)
It might not just have been the presence of the Dulwich Picture Gallery or the convenience of travel in commuting to his new teaching posts that brought Kitaj to Dulwich. Dulwich had a reputation of a place of sanctuary for Jewish families escaping from German occupied Europe in the 1930’s. Getrude Bing and Fritz Saxl, who had brought the Warburg Library to London from Germany where it had fallen from favour by the Nazi authorities because it had been founded by a Jew, had settled in 162 East Dulwich Grove. It was there where they held an open- house for many young art historians, including the young RB Kitaj.
One of Kitaj’s greatest influences was Percy Horton who was his teacher as Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford. Horton was the subject of the Dulwich Artist in Residence article by Judy Fitton in the Winter edition of this journal. Horton, who had been taught by Sickert, a former pupil of Degas provided the pedigree that appealed to Kitaj’s sense of history. Kitaj’s skill as a draughtsman was also compared with that of Degas.
Living at the time at College Gardens (in the 1960’s still a group of large Victorian houses) was Johannes Wilde (1891-1970), a devout Roman Catholic and Michaelangelo expert who had been forced to flee Vienna in 1938, fearing for the safety of his Hungarian-Jewish wife, Julia, also an art historian, after the Anschluss. Living on the opposite side of College Road was Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989) a friend of Saxl and who was also Jewish and was also forced to flee Nazism. Ettlinger, an expert on the Italian Renaissance, worked initially at the Warburg Institute.
It was Johannes Wilde’s former pupil in Vienna, Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978) who would be the conduit and financier who spirited Wilde,and others, out of Nazi-controlled Europe. One of these was Fritz Grossman (1902-1984), a fellow Jewish art historian in Vienna and an expert of Brueghel and Rubens. Grossman would assist Seilern in the cataloguing of his huge art collection. Like his associates at the Warburg, Grossman would also settle in Dulwich,
Count Antoine Seilern figures in a number of extraordinary extractions to safety of Jewish art historians centered in Vienna in the 1930’s where he was studying for his PhD on the work of Rubens. In addition to those mentioned they also include Ludwig Munz (1889-1957) who Seilern spirited out of Austria to England and who took up a post at the Warburg Institute where he was an expert on Rembrandt. There is no evidence that Seilern was any kind of patron of Kitaj but quite certainly they were part of the same circle.
When R B Kitaj sold 131 Burbage Road in the summer of 1967, it was to Count Antoine Seilern who then allowed Johannes Wilde and his wife to move in. After Wilde died in 1970, his widow Julia remained until her death, still at Seilern’s expense. When Fritz Grossman and his wife Annie returned to England in 1972 following his retirement from the University of Washington in Seattle where he had been Visiting Professor, they also became residents at 131 Burbage Road and also at the expense of the generous Seilern. They were allowed to remain there even after the Count’s death in 1978 and until their own deaths.
For Kitaj’s wife Elsi, the Burbage Road years were not happy ones. Her increasing depression had been heightened by the miscarriage of a daughter. In Dulwich her depression was displayed in over- concern about the loss of her cherished view across the fields beyond the garden fence by the erection of a shed in a neighbouring field. The nascent Dulwich Society’s help was sought in attempting in vain to halt this development. Elsi committed suicide in 1969 leaving Kitaj to raise his eleven year old son and six year old adopted daughter Dominie.
Around Dulwich, Kitaj was an attractive, burly and tough looking character, more out of Hollywood than the Ruskin School of Art, but one not without a sense of humour. The move from Dulwich eventually led to Califromia and to the UCLA and a teaching post and his meeting with Sandra Fisher (1947-1994). R B and Sandra Fisher were together for twenty four years and married for the last twelve. He was dazzled and obsessed with Sandra and she lived in awe of him, declaring him to be one of the world’s great artists. They were mutual friends of David Hockney who was also living in Los Angeles and with whom Kitaj had become a close friend while they were both at the Royal College of Art in London.
Kitaj was reponsible for referring to a loose group of figurative artists, who were drawn together by shared respect and aspirations from the 1950’s onwards, as ‘The London Group’ in his catalogue introduction of the exhibition entitled ‘The Human Clay’ in 1976 at the Hayward Gallery. The London Group, in addition to Kitaj himself, included Michael Andrews, Leon Kossof, Francis Bacon, Iuan Uglkow, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach. At the same time Kitaj began to position himself explicitly as a Jewish artist coupled with his study of role models such as Franz Kafka. Later, he would confront the history of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews in his art.
In 1985 Kitaj was elected to the Royal Academy, the first American to join the Academy since John Singer Sargent. He received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and in 2001 staged another exhibition in London, at the National Gallery entitled “Kitaj in the Aura of Cézanne and Other Masters”. It was however the fateful Tate exhibition for which Kitaj will ever be remembered. Alexander Adams, the writer and artist says that it showed both critics and artist in a bad light. “The critics were peevish and unprofessional, Kitaj was rashly forthright and later as intemperate as his detractors.”
Andrew Graham-Dixon of The Indepenent complained:
‘In the absence of any apparent emotional drive to create pictures, Kitaj has spent his life concealing an absence, a lack in himself….The Wandering Jew, the T S Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz: a small man with a megaphone held to his lips’…..’Ron Kitaj is an egotist and at his best when giving interviews’
The principal complaint of his critics was his practice, one might say obsession with minutely referencing his work, often from obscure and scholarly books, by using labels on the work itself. It was of course a device he had used as far back as his Rosa Luxembourg painting. It will now be possible to judge for oneself whether this improves or detracts from appreciating R B Kitaj’s work as some seventy of his pictures are now on exhibition in Britain.
R B Kitaj: Obsessions – The Art of Identity 21st February- 16th June. The Jewish Museum London and Pallant House Chichester are concurrently showing of a selection of work drawn from OBSESSIONS, the exhibition previously at The Jewish Museum, Berlin.
1 Edward Chaney in Warburgian Artist: R B Kitaj, Edgar Wind, Ernst Gombrich and the Warburg Institute
2 Obessions - catalogue
3 2012 R.B. Kitaj, Confessions of an old Jewish Painter, unpublished autobiography, R.B. Kitaj Estate