The Erotic Obsessions of American Artist R. B. Kitaj
24 september 2021 
30 min. read

The Erotic Obsessions of American Artist R. B. Kitaj

Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1932-2007) was an American painter and printmaker with Jewish roots. He studied fine arts at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and afterward classified himself as a representative of the “School of London” (the formula he invented to describe artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, himself, and some other painters). The first comprehensive exhibition of Kitaj’s works organized in 2012 was entitled Obsessions. These obsessions were his Jewish origin and Jewish culture, human sexuality, and eroticism.

R. B. Kitaj with his cat

Fig. 1. R. B. Kitaj with his cat (apollo-magazine.com)

R. B. Kitaj the oak tree

Fig. 2. The Oak Tree (all-art.org)

R. B. Kitaj melancholy after Dürer

Fig. 3. Melancholy after Dürer (artuk.org)

Hunger Upside Down

Kitaj was born in Ohio, USA, in the family of the Hungarian Sigmund Benway and the American-born daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Benway left the family shortly after Ronald was born, and, in 1941, his mother married Dr. Walter Kitaj, a Viennese refugee who worked as a research chemist. The future artist took his name. Both Walter Kitaj and Ronald’s mother were non-practicing Jews. Ronald received primary education at Troy High School in New York and, at the age of 17, became a seaman on a Norwegian freighter. The character of Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) wrote articles on art not to die starving and eventually signed on to the crew of a ship to leave behind hiü vain intellectual activity. Kitaj, on the contrary, realized his ambition to be an artist ‘on a Norwegian cargo ship […] slipping out of New York harbor at night, bound for Havana and Mexican ports in the summer of 1950’ (apollo-magazine.com). After this insight, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, then studied at the Cooper Union in New York City in the first half of the 1950s. Then there was a two-year gap when Kitaj did military service in the US Army, and, after this, he continued his art education at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in 1958-59, which we mentioned above. There he discovered Cezanne. The last place where he studied at the beginning of the 1960s was the Royal College of Art in London. There he made friends with painter David Hockney and philosopher Richard Wollheim.

R. B. Kitaj Frankfurter Brothel

Fig. 4. Frankfurt Brothel, 1978 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Where the Railroad Leaves the Sea

Fig. 5. Where the Railroad Leaves the Sea, 1964 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Paris, 1993

Fig. 6. Paris, 1993 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj He and She (The Sickness Unto Death)

Fig. 7. He and She (The Sickness Unto Death), 1994 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Nose to nose

Fig. 8. Nose to nose, 2003 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Boys and Girls!

Fig. 9. Boys and Girls! 1964 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Los Angeles No. 11 (Bathtub

Fig. 10. Los Angeles No. 11 (Bathtub), 2002-2003 (pinterest.com)

Further Career and Influence

In the 1960s, Kitaj settled in England and worked as a teacher at the Ealing Art College, the Camberwell School of Art, and the Slade School of Art. His first solo exhibition Pictures with commentary, Pictures without commentary was held at Marlborough New London Gallery in 1963. Commentaries, included in the pictures and the exhibition catalog, referred to literature, history, and philosophy. In 1976, Kitaj was a curator of The Human Clay exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It was in the catalog for this event, where he labeled the participating artists as ‘School of London.’ Kitaj achieved recognition as a skillful draftsman being on par with Degas. At the same time, his collage-like manner with fragmented images, bright colors, and mixed allusions to history, art, literature, and politics influenced British pop art. He also produced screen-prints in cooperation with Chris Prater and claimed that he used them as sketches for future paintings. Besides, he practiced the montage technique to create complex compositions with disorienting landscapes. In 1981, Kitaj staged a retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The same year he became an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design and a full Academician three years later.

R. B. Kitaj Outlying London Districts II

Fig. 11. Outlying London Districts II, 1971 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj The Rise of Fascism

Fig. 12. The Rise of Fascism, the 1970s. As Kitaj explained, “the central bather is the Fascist, the bather on the left is the beautiful victim, and the bather on the right is the ordinary European, “watching it all happen” (romethesecondtime.blogspot.com)

R. B. Kitaj Marynka Smoking

Fig. 13. Marynka Smoking (wikiart.org)

R. B. Kitaj Barcelonetta

Fig. 14. Barcelonetta, 1979 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Mary Ann

Fig. 15. Mary Ann, 1980 (modernartoxford.org.uk)

R. B. Kitaj Sleeping Fires

Fig. 16. Sleeping Fires, print, 1975 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj artist

Fig. 17. Sides, 1979 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj A Rash Act

Fig. 18. A Rash Act, 1975 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj The Green Blanket

Fig. 19. The Green Blanket, 1978 (rbkitaj.org)

A Wandering Jew

Kitaj’s later years were marked with a growing interest in his Jewish heritage, the works of Kafka and Walter Benjamin, and reflections upon his alienation. A second retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1994 received negative reactions and caused the so-called ‘Tate war.’ Kitaj’s adherence to comments and references was treated as pretentious name-dropping. According to Tim Adams, Kitaj was called an egoist imprisoned by his library and an art’s equivalent of the Wizard of Oz, a small man with a megaphone pressed against his lips. Kitaj backfired, accusing critics of anti-intellectualism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism. When his second wife, Sandra Fisher, died of an aneurism two weeks after the show was opened, Kitaj also blamed them for her death. In 1997, he returned to the USA. The Tate war became a central topic of his later paintings. In the same year, he made an installation of paintings, photographs, and text across the wall of the gallery at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Among other elements, it contained a graffiti inscription The Critic Kills.

R. B. Kitaj Some do not..

Fig. 20. Some do not…, 1975 (britishmuseum.org)

Lifelong Addiction to Whoredom

Like many artists, Kitaj had to prove himself and others his importance as an artist and a man. He regarded his first wife Elsi as a trophy, though, their marriage made things more complicated. As Kitaj wrote in his Confessions, he ‘was supposed to be E. Hemingway, the expatriate painter on edge’ which was barely possible in his status of father and husband. Kitaj led a very ‘bohemian’ life disappearing with different girlfriends for ‘perfect days and nights whoring.’ Yet his second wife, as he claimed, tolerated his ‘lifelong addiction to Whoredom [which] ran unabated.’

R. B. Kitaj Smyrna Greek (Nikos)

Fig. 21. Smyrna Greek (Nikos), all-art.org

Of Bobby's Shift off from Me Sexually

Fig. 22. Of Bobby’s Shift off from Me Sexually, to Someone Else, from A Day Book by Robert Creeley series, 1970-72 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj The Ohio Gang

Fig. 23. The Ohio Gang, 1964 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Song of Songs

Fig. 24. Song of Songs, 2006 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj The Philosopher Queen

Fig. 25. The Philosopher Queen, 1978 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj English Woman

Fig. 26. English Woman, 1969-70 (rbkitaj.org)

Post-It Note

Fun fact: in 2000, Kitaj made a post-it note for an internet charity auction held by 3M Company. The charcoal and pastel piece was sold for $925 and included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive post-it note in history.

R. B. Kitaj Nude female figure,

Fig. 27. Nude female figure, view of back and torso; trial proof. c.1975 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Marynka pregnant

Fig. 28. Marynka pregnant, 1997 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Miranda

Fig. 29. Miranda, 1980 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Foreshortened girl

Fig. 30. Foreshortened girl, 1975 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Standing nude

Fig. 31. Standing nude, 1975 (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Nude couple in bed

Fig. 32. Nude couple in bed (britishmuseum.org)

R. B. Kitaj Erie Shore

Fig. 33. Erie Shore, 1966 (rbkitaj.org)

R. B. Kitaj Bather / Wanda

Fig. 34. Bather / Wanda, (royalacademy.org.uk)

R. B. Kitaj My Cat and Her Husband

Fig. 35. My Cat and Her Husband, abebooks.com

Sources: Wikipedia.org; rbkitaj.org; Tim Adams. R. B. Kitaj in his own words (apollo-magazine.com); britishmuseum.org

About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
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