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R B Kitaj retrospective comes to London a decade after he fled Britain over 'anti-Semitism'

An American who spent his life in England, the artist Kitaj was so incensed by “anti-Semitic” reviews of his Tate show in 1994, he left the country. Six years after his death, a pair of shows reassess his legacy

How Jewish was the art of R B Kitaj, one of the leading lights of postwar British art who became so upset by the critical mauling he got for his 1994 Tate exhibition that he left the country for his native America, blaming the critics not only for his departure but for the early death of his wife?

Indeed, how much did anti-Semitism account, as he charged, for the ferocity of assault from a critical community which had long praised him to the skies? One asks because this retrospective of his work – the first to be seen here since the 1994 exhibition – originated in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It comes here divided between the Jewish Museum in London and Pallant House in Chichester.

Kitaj (1932-2007), who came from a Jewish-American background in the Midwest but spent most of his life in London, certainly proclaimed his lineage loudly enough once he started to get interested in the subject in the 1970s. In fact, he went much further, announcing his intention in his First Diasporist Manifesto published in 1988/9 to find and develop an art that would encompass not just the Jewish experience of exile but African-Americans and others marginalised by the cataclysms of his time.

The result is some remarkable pictures in the Jewish Museum's section of the show, starting with the famous If Not, Not from 1975/6, a powerful work later copied as a tapestry in the hall of the British Library (ironically absent for cleaning, but back on 2 April). In it, a medley of different images and figures, including representations of himself, lead to a grim depiction of the Auschwitz gatehouse at the top left. He followed it with a depiction of the Jewish refugees in Britain, in Cecil Court, London W.C.2, of the Wandering Jew in The Jewish Rider and of his own Jewish wedding to the American artist Sandra Fisher in 1983.

This is powerful stuff, full of the colour and the symbolism that were his trademarks. But this dramatic espousal of the cause, it has to be said, came relatively late. Go down to Chichester, which is showing a broader chronological display of his works, and there the Jewish question hardly appears at all before 1975. Rather it is the imagery and spirit of paganism versus Christianity that catches his eye in Priest, Deckchair and Distraught Woman from 1961, and the cause of Spanish anarchism in Junta of 1962. Look at his picture La Pasionaria from 1969 and you see exactly the same style applied to this Spanish communist that he was later to apply to the Holocaust and its resonances.

It was the intellectualisation of his art, and the extensive “Prefaces” that he wrote to accompany his pictures, which most offended his critics. Kitaj himself put their assault down to what he called “a form of low-octane, English anti-Semitism' (he later dropped the ”low octane“ part as he became ever more vituperative in his ripostes). There may have been an element of this, or at least the English distaste for the jumped-up foreigner, in their attacks, although it was not something that seems to have been felt by his other artist friends, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. But it was much more an English suspicion of anything that smacked of intellectual pretension, a Modernist sense that art should be able to speak for itself without all the explanations that Kitaj attached to his.

Kitaj's difficulty was that he was primarily a painter but one who sought to bring painting and words together in ways that seemed to his critics to deprive the pictures of the authenticity of feeling that their subject matter warranted. There were just too many allusions, too much reference to other sources. Part of the problem, I think, was that at heart he was an autodidact. It wasn't that he lacked formal art education. Indeed, he had a good deal of it, studying at various times in New York and Vienna before landing up in Britain at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and then the Royal College of Art, where he met up with the group of artists including Hockney, Freud and Auerbach who were to remain close friends all his life.

But, brought up in a left-wing Jewish home in Cleveland, Ohio, he had in fact left school relatively early to go to sea and had also been called up to serve in the army. His early years gave him, or certainly expressed – Jewish or not – a certain rootlessness, as well as intensity in the way that he picked up new ideas and pursued them until he had wrestled and beaten them into the ground. It gives his art a quality that is at once fragmentary but also intense, at the same time ambiguous and emphatic. It is the art always of the outsider, standing back, looking on. But it is also a painting fiercely engaged, predicated on the belief that painting on its own could not communicate the fractured nature of 20th-century violence and disharmony.

Going round the two galleries today – and it is worth the trouble of going to both despite the artificiality of the separation of pictures – it is hard to see what was the problem the critics had in 1994. By now we have learned enough from conceptual art and video performance not to be put off by verbalisation and explanation in art. You can view his pictures just enjoying the freshness with which he colours his figures and the vigour with which he conveys his message. His exegeses have given academics endless material with which to root out his reading and his theorising, and for feminists to berate him for his assertion of Jewish masculinity, but they're not necessary. Whether peculiarly Jewish or otherwise, his figurative art, and his ability to communicate the contradictory and fragmentary nature of man's life in the modern world, make him one of the most significant and certainly the most interesting of the postwar artists in this country.

And if you tire of the messages, go to the wonderfully affectionate portraits in Chichester and the sketches in the Jewish Museum. “When I'm sick of being difficult, I get a pencil and draw a friend,” he wrote in his 1988 Manifesto. Maybe that was the truest Jewish characteristic of all: a passion for the intimacies of relationships and the hurt felt when you feel rejected by those you thought had accepted you.

RB Kitaj: Obsessions – The Art of Identity Jewish Museum, London NW1 (020 7284 7384) to 16 June; Obsessions – Analyst for Our Time, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557) to 16 June