Kitaj, RB: Study for the World's Body (1974)

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Illustration is one of the dirty words of modern art. Call a picture "mere illustration", and you imply that it is not as a work of art should be - properly autonomous and independent. It relies too much on some external, offstage content, just as a book illustration draws its interest from the text to which it is attached. It does not speak for itself.

The fear of story ran very deep in 20th-century art. Illustration, or anecdote, or literariness (to add some more rude words) could be detected almost anywhere. Any picture that wasn't abstract might be open to the charge, and even some abstract pictures, if they were suspected of depicting a concept or an emotion.

What this approach missed was the way a picture's relationship to an external subject can be a very fertile source of interest. This relationship is never firm. Illustration always involves some play or tension between the image and its script and this can be deliberately cultivated.

Some illustrative pictures are fixed to a known text, and some make up their own subjects, and let the viewer work it out. But there are also those that offer narrative hints that can't be properly translated. The picture is all clued up, but the script eludes you. There's a picture like that by RB Kitaj, Study for the World's Body. It's full of possible befores and afters and scenarios, but exactly what the story is you never can tell.

A love story, though, presumably, a troubled valentine. The picture shows a couple in a room, at some crisis point in their affair, and the room itself looks familiar, and shows the sort of thing that's going on. Empty hanger on the wall, bulbless socket dangling from the ceiling, bare wardrobe, no curtains on the lit sash windows: it's some kind of under-furnished flat or hotel room, a place of urban daytime assignations.

The image is an arrangement in black and white and red, and its basic design is a nest of oblongs the black wardrobe, within the window wall, within the whole picture. The bold colours and blocky shapes recall a propaganda poster which gives a kind of "public" dimension to the intimate crisis depicted. At the same time, and despite the shape of the whole picture, it also looks like a film still.

If you know cinema well, you may spot that it is partly a film still. The two figures are quoted, fairly closely, from a still from The Bride ofGlom-dal, a very obscure film by the Danish director Carl Dreyer, about the love between a poor farm-boy and a rich girl. Likewise, if you know literature, you may realise that Kitaj's title is partly quoted from a book of criticism, The World's Body, by the American poet John Crowe Ransom.

What do these sources add? Not much. It's hard to make out any strong connections between the picture, the film and the book. In fact, this picture gives us no reason to suppose that the artist had even seen the film, as opposed to the single, highly charged still' or that he knew the book, beyond its suggestive title. From Dreyer, he took a promising image, from Ransom a promising phrase, that's all.

And made them into this crisis drama scene. The crisis feeling is strengthened by the off-kilter framing, with the verticals and horizontals all at a slant, the figures almost out of frame at the bottom. And see how the two faces are jammed together side-by-side, with one turning its back directly on the other, and how her hand arrives out of nowhere, suddenly, to grip his shoulder. (Both those features are taken from the original black-and-white film still).

And then there's the sense of immediate story, the critical thing that's happening in this room, at this moment, as he anxiously turns his face away from hers. Is it a flinch of guilt, aversion, escape - she's just told him or let slip something disastrous? Is it a defensive look over the shoulder he's just heard someone else on the stair, at the door? Or both his realisation that he's in an emotional and actual trap?

There's a limit to how far it's sensible to make up an imagined story, to spell out the narratives that the picture holds in suspension. Everything is intimation - just like the suggestion, given by the propaganda colours, and confirmed by the picture's title, Study for the World's Body, that there's something "worldly", political, about this personal sex crisis.

Still, there's no end to possible hint-taking. The dominant red, in the overbearing wall and ceiling, is picked up in the man's reddening cheek. (Red flags, red passion, red shame?) Meanwhile, his flesh-toned face separates him from the overall black-white-red scheme. It makes him an outsider to the rest of the picture, to the entrapping woman and room, from which he's trying to break away, break out.

Are we to feel that he's an innocent, and she white-faced, made-up is a "bad" seducing girl? And what about the hanger that hangs above his head, and the light-socket hanging above hers? Clues? The elusiveness of the scenario aligns with its vaguely menacing nature. The viewer's intrigued suspicions are at one with the young man's panic: neither of us quite sure what we've got ourselves into.