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RIGHT OF REPLY / Hit or myth?: The Tate's R B Kitaj retrospective received a critical pummelling. Richard Morphet, the show's curator and keeper of the gallery's modern collection, fights his corner

Richard Morphet
Wednesday 06 July 1994 23:02 BST

The R B Kitaj retrospective opened at the Tate Gallery to hostile reviews. Richard Dorment (Daily Telegraph) complained that, 'His explanations are so cerebral . . . that I began to feel assaulted by the overbearing ego of a man who can't imagine how his every thought could fail to fascinate me.' William Feaver (Observer) wrote: 'Many of the paintings here are curiously arbitrary, line and colour laid on like orders received.' Tim Hilton (Independent on Sunday) remarked: 'Kitaj is an egotist, and at his best when giving interviews.'

The Independent's own critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon was the most scathing: 'In the absence of any apparent emotional drive to create pictures, Kitaj has spent his life concealing an absence, a lack in himself . . . The Wandering Jew, the T S Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz: a small man with a megaphone held to his lips.' Foul] cries Richard Morphet, the curator of the exhibition:

'Glaring among the omissions from Andrew Graham-Dixon's jaundiced analysis is any sense that the pictures speak to the viewer directly through the richness of their colour, the animation of their paint handling, the compelling appearance of the human images and the powerful atmospheres created. One can see how sustained is the visitors' engagement with the individual works; this is readily explained by the visible qualities of Kitaj's art.

'Very many visitors also find the texts Kitaj has provided at point of viewing enormously helpful, but these texts are aids to an understanding of the artist's aims (something the absence of which is frequently lamented by critics) and not, as Graham-Dixon writes, a sign of a 'reluctance to allow his paintings to speak for themselves'.

'Graham-Dixon believes that Kitaj has constructed a 'myth' of his life, interests and creative impulses, which is somehow artificial and self-important. But most artists 'construct' their personae by one means or another. Some, like Kitaj, reveal a wide range of their passions in art and in life. To do this is neither artificial nor self-important, unless that be said of art and literature as a whole. It is refreshing that an artist should use his complementary gifts as artist and writer in so unstinting a way. Moreover the force of Kitaj's feelings, the fullness of which is explicit in his incisive writings, leaps from his paintings before one has read a word about them. The common denominator of his works is warmth of human feeling; his generosity of spirit is sadly lacking in some of his critics.

'Kitaj's praise for Degas or Cezanne does not mean he feels himself their equal; indeed, he is haunted by a sense of his inadequacy. Many disagree; his extraordinary renewal of depictive art invigorates them. Graham-Dixon's dictum that: 'If a painter wishes to paint vast and terrible themes he must paint vastly and terribly moving pictures' is too restrictive. Kitaj evokes poignancy, compassion and outrage in ways which only confirm their richness of imaginative effect.

'Graham-Dixon is too prescriptive. Kitaj's is a searching, abundant vision. It takes awkward but lively forms and is not afraid of being embarrassing. In terms of humanity and of art it speaks to a wide audience which can only grow.'

(Photograph omitted)

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