PAINTING / Grand designs of an unmodern man: Soldier, seaman, promoter, polemicist, R B Kitaj is also a singularly good painter. A 60th-birthday interview

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THE PICTURE shows three figures walking across a shallow stage. 'This is myself in youth, and in middle age, and in old age,' says the artist. It's called My Cities, and it's a summing- up of sorts. A drop curtain behind the figures is marked with capital letters, 'the capital letters of the cities where I've lived, which have meant most to me'. L for London - where R B Kitaj has lived mostly since the mid-Sixties, though he keeps his American passport. 'V for Vienna, where I studied art. C for Cleveland (Ohio), where I was born. M, Manhattan, where I began, where I was a sailor. I visited all the South American ports. Havana, where I lost my virginity . . .' And several more. This is characteristic Kitaj, in its willingness to spell things out, even though this particular level of meaning will soon be hidden. The capital letters are in the course of being painted over.

Kitaj is 60 on Thursday. There is no coinciding exhibition. He has not had one for 10 years, but he's working towards a retrospective in 1994, and his two-storey studio in SW3 is full of works-in-progress like My Cities.

His career often looks like an artistic life in the old style. Some genuine Wanderjahre to start with - merchant seaman, conscript in the US army in France, art student in Vienna, Oxford, and at the RCA - before his first London show in 1963. And subsequently, the artist hasn't been afraid to take on other roles. He has played the promoter, with his 1976 exhibition of contemporary figurative art at the Hayward Gallery, The Human Clay, in which he identified a 'School of London' - not a school precisely, but a loose alliance of figurative artists and mainly personal friends: Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff, Hockney, Hodgkin. The term, coined by Kitaj, has since become common critical currency. (Works by most of them hang around his studio too.) He's also acted the controversialist, with some polemic on behalf of life drawing which accompanied that show - 'which I got so much flak from. I pointed out that it was no coincidence that the two greatest modernists, the two greatest inventors of new forms, Picasso and Matisse, were also the two greatest draughtsmen of the human figure. I'm convinced it goes together'.

Kitaj can say this. His own draughtsmanship is not in question, and the human figure has always been central to his painting. But his position as a modern artist is not so clear. He is an anomalous figure. In the mid-Sixties he was irrelevantly classed as a Pop artist (on the basis of some cartoony elements in the pictures). His artistic heroes are the modern classics, Degas, Cezanne, Matisse - above all Cezanne, 'the greatest painter who ever lived, someone I dwell upon every day'. But he has never fitted into any modern movements. His most distinctive achievements have been a series of subject paintings which defy the basic rule of the modern work of art, 'the dogma that the autonomy of the picture is sacrosanct. I like to introduce into painting what interests me most. The picture exists in life itself, not as a sacred object that one mustn't intrude upon. Everything intrudes: one's political inclinations, one's sexual life, friendships, the books you read, history. Everything is connected with painting.'

Wars, revolutions, poets, critics, movies, mystics have all intruded, in some shape or form, or through some allegory or allusion, into Kitaj's painting. He's tried to burst the Modernist cordon sanitaire between the work and the world by absolutely stuffing the work with subject matter.

The breadth of his ambitions comes out, talking about another recent picture - quite a simple one showing a boxing match. The composition is derived from one by the Ohio 'Ashcan' painter, George Bellows. The title is Whistler vs Ruskin, a reference to the famous libel action of 1877 - it is Whistler who sends Ruskin flying out of the ring, with Kitaj putting himself in as the referee. I asked if the picture was meant quite seriously. 'Very seriously. If for no other reason than that I would love to raise the idea of comedy in painting. I can't think of any substantial pictures that are funny. Modernism has tended to keep out a lot of aspects of life. It's one of a dozen things I want to introduce into pictures. For instance, I would love to be able to do what novelists do, to create characters, that didn't exist before, that you never forget. It's hard to think of painters who've done that.'

He has in fact already tried to do this, in his series of -ist pictures from the Seventies and Eighties - The Orientalist, The Cafeist, The Sensualist - and with the figure of Joe Singer, a Jewish refugee who recurs in several paintings. In a work of 1991, Against Slander, he essayed a version of that least popular of genres, the didactic piece, inspired by a theological tract by a Jewish sage. 'There are vast areas of literature that one learns from. And then I'm called a literary painter. Interestingly enough,' - turning back to the boxing match scene - 'it was in this period that the analogy with music was being introduced. Whistler would title his pictures Symphony or Nocturne. Yet over these last hundred years, the analogy with literature has been blasphemous.'

Kitaj is not just a literary painter but a bookish one. The studio doubles as a voluminous library, and the canvases hold a wealth of reading. His best-known slogan - coined in 1964 - goes: 'Some books have pictures and some pictures have books.' Many of the pictures carry explanatory notes, and Kitaj is disarmingly ready to re-interpret a painting in words, where another artist might have re-painted it. A recent note to The Rise of Fascism (1980) gives a taste of this, and of his allegorical optimism: 'I used to mean these bathers to allude to the classic Fascist period only, but now I don't. The bather on the left is the beautiful victim, the figure of Fascism is in the middle and the seated bather is everyone else.' So there.

Recently he has written his first short stories. They take off from pictures. 'I don't think that's been done before, that a story depends on the picture, and doesn't exist without it.'

In 1989, Kitaj did another old-style-artist thing, and published a manifesto: the First Diasporist Manifesto. It wasn't in the traditional way a rallying cry. It was more a 'self-exhortation', an attempt to site himself in some sort of tradition - specifically a Jewish one. Raised as an atheist, Kitaj came late to consciousness of his Jewishness and 'The Jewish Questions'. The manifesto affirmed Kitaj's faith in the state of diaspora, exile, uprootedness. As an art manifesto it is a strange document, for as he says, 'There is no Jewish tradition of art'. Anyone looking in it for a definite artistic programme would certainly be baffled ('What does Diasporist painting look like? I think it looks like my pictures'). But it's typical of Kitaj that he should expound essentially a moral position, a historical sense, as the basis of his art. Cezanne said he wanted to 'do Poussin again after Nature'. In the Manifesto, Kitaj revised this, with probably his most ambitious statement: 'To do Cezanne and Degas and Kafka again, after Auschwitz.'

Given all Kitaj's ideas, his self-description as 'a village explainer', might he have liked a more directly public role for his art? There was one public commission, for - appropriately - a wall of the British Library, under construction at St Pancras. But Kitaj balked. 'It's so sad that so many of the good painters now are existentialist easel painters who stay in their rooms and live a hermetic life. It's a huge wall. What a tragedy there's no Michelangelo alive, no Delacroix. It's like the ass-end of Romanticism - so many of the painters are nervous little guys.' He includes himself - but takes encouragement from another kind of public appearance, continuing requests for the use of his images as book covers.

Kitaj's art expands to the grandest themes, and withdraws to the personal. The most recent work is distinctly autobiographical. There is a large painting, which he expects never to come right, of his wedding to the painter Sandra Fisher in 1983, with most of the School of London in attendance. There is an ongoing series of small pictures, marking the signs of age: Bad Eyes, Bad Back, Bad Heart, Bad Hearing, Bad Knee, Bad Shoulder, Bad Skin, Bad Character. Kitaj had a mild heart-attack three years ago. 'I have subjects that will last me 25 years if I live that long.' I hope he's spared.

'Kitaj', a fully illustrated study by Marco Livingstone, has just been revised (Phaidon pounds 17.95).

(Photographs omitted)