Visual art review: RB Kitaj, Obsessions - The rise and fall and rise again of an embittered virtuoso


Although R B Kitaj lived in Britain for nearly 40 years, he ended up an obsessive, wounded outsider.

And when his major retrospective at the Tate was slated by so many critics in 1994, he became traumatised. Soon after the show opened, his second wife, Sandra Fisher, died of an aneurism, suddenly and unexpectedly. So Kitaj blamed the hostile critics for her death, and embarked on a large, angry painting called The Killer-Critic Assassinated by his Widower, Even. Here, Kitaj portrays himself and Manet shooting straight into the eyes of a monstrous, vomiting creature, whose crazy face bulges with venom. Soon afterwards, Kitaj returned to his native US and settled in Los Angeles. There he spent his final decade; he never recovered from Sandra's death, and committed suicide just before his 75th birthday.

Now, six years later, this tragic artist has his first major UK retrospective since the gruesome Tate debacle. Divided between the Jewish Museum in London and Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, it offers fascinating insights into the complex, emotional and culturally hungry painter who made England his home in the late 1950s.

Even before then, his life had been difficult. His Hungarian father left the family soon after Kitaj was born, near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. Almost a decade passed before his Jewish mother, Jeanne, married Walter Kitaj, a Jewish emigré from Vienna. And in 1948, the teenage RB hitch-hiked to New York before roaming the oceans as a merchant seaman. Only later did he study art, gaining a place at the Royal College of Art in 1959. There, in an exceptionally lively student group, David Hockney became his lifelong friend.

The vitality of Kitaj's early work is summed up by a large painting on view at Pallant House: The Ohio Gang. This early masterpiece was based on John Ford's 1949 Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: the erotic female nude dominating the picture has pledged herself to one of the men lurking, in strangely distorted poses, nearby. Here he handles oil and graphite with exceptional virtuosity, but the suicide in 1969 of his first wife, Elsi Roessler, prompted him to reconsider his art and resume drawing from life.

Kitaj was an inveterate reader, and in the early 1970s he came across Hannah Arendt's devastating book Eichmann in Jerusalem. It prompted him to engage with the Holocaust and dwell on his own Jewishness. The visual results were uneven and, at times, overloaded with complex references. But one outstanding painting, now in the Jewish Museum show, is called If Not, Not. It takes us into a wrecked landscape inspired by sources as diverse as T S Eliot's The Waste Land and Giorgione's The Tempest. But the entire melancholy scene is dominated by the gatehouse at Auschwitz. Looming like a spectre over the alienated figures below, this grim structure sums up Kitaj's growing preoccupation with the tragic aspects of human existence.

It culminated, in 2007, in the decision to terminate his own life, after producing some self-portraits where his despair is conveyed with harrowing power. These two well-selected shows offer a much-needed opportunity to reassess him, and realise what an intense artist we have lost.

The Jewish Museum (020-7284 7384) and Pallant House (01243 774557) to 16 June