Critics’ Picks

R. B. Kitaj, Drancy, 1984–86, pastel and coal on paper, 39 × 30 3/4".


R. B. Kitaj

Jewish Museum Berlin
Lindenstraße 9-14
September 21 - January 27

R. B. Kitaj once remarked that as a painter he was a “montagist,” just like Walter Benjamin was in his writings—like the theorist, the artist loved to build up a work from fragments and to allow inconclusive “failures.” This is particularly true for the work Kitaj created in the 1960s, much of which is on view in this retrospective chronicling his practice until his 2007 suicide.

Take The Ohio Gang, 1964, which presents a surreal mix of figures; it is part painting, part drawing. Likewise in Walter Lippmann, 1966, there is a contrast between the geometri framework, which consists of sharp lines, and the dreamy scenes of desire, executed in sensitive drawing. One of Kitaj’s recurrent motifs was the search for identity as a Jew. If Not, Not, 1975–76, shows an idyllic Gaugin-like landscape, with palm trees. A building visible toward the upper left corner can be recognized as the gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp, with its center tower and the gate where trains could pass through. Another recurrent motif is the dialogue with old and modern masters. The composition of If Not, Not for example, shows similarities with Giorgione’s Tempest from 1507–08 while Notre Dame de Paris, 1984–86, has a structure that is similar to Fra Angelico’s The Dream of Innocent III from 1434–35.

Kitaj’s last major retrospective was in 1994 at the Tate Gallery in London, a show that brought him severe criticism from the British press—claims were made that he was an illustrator and that while his work pointed to the terror of the twentieth century, he lacked the ability to evoke it as a painter. This seems unfair. Kitaj may sometimes be over the top in his expressionism or symbolism, but he is an original and undogmatic painter not confined to one style. His work clearly springs from an urge to understand and digest his era.