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Around the galleries

R.B. Kitaj at Abbot Hall, Cumbria

— August 2011

Associated media

R.B. Kitaj (1932 - 2007) K Enters the Castle at Last (2004)

Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections

Rosalind Ormiston reports on a major retrospective

The first major UK exhibition of the American artist R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007), since his poorly received Tate retrospective in 1994, is at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, in Kendal, Cumbria (until 8 October 2011). Free of the hard-sell thrust of a ‘retrospective blockbuster’ there is now a chance to look at Robert Brooks Kitaj ‘face-to-face’ in critical self-portraits, including  The Jewish Scream (Last Self-Portrait),  2007, completed in three days before his death in 2007. In the intimate upper galleries of the Georgian villa a perceptive reflection of Kitaj’s work subtly creates an appreciative reappraisal.

This exhibition is the fulfilment of a promise made to Kitaj in 2006. He asked two of his close friends, the writer Michael Raeburn and art historian Marilyn McCully to curate an exhibition of his work. This they have now achieved, working together with Helen Watson, the artistic director at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.  ‘Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections’ follows on from a series of ‘School of London’ artist exhibitions held at the Gallery. Raeburn and McCully were told about Abbot Hall by Geoffrey Parton, Kitaj’s London dealer at Marlborough Fine Art, who encouraged them to visit it and explore the possibility of holding the exhibition there. Abbot Hall owns two Kitaj oil paintings, his intriguing  K Enters the Castle at Last  (2004) and  The Poet  (2006), both on display.

Spanning 50 years from 1958–2007, over 50 paintings and works on paper - beginning with the oil painting  Erasmus Variations  (1958) – focus on Kitaj’s perception of himself, his family, his friends, andhuman events that concerned him. The show includes some of his most distinguished works,  The Rise of Fascism  (1975–9) and  Cecil Court, London W.C.2. (The Refugees)  (1983–4). Silkscreen portraits from the 1960s give an historical snapshot of his cherished circle of friends, such as the artist David Hockney, whom he met while studying at the Royal College of Art, London, and the poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Art and literature were Kitaj’s obsessions. His first exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, London in 1962, was titled ‘Painting with Commentary’. It established him as a leading artist and introduced him to a gifted circle, including artists Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Leon Kossof; some would become his lifelong friends.

Kitaj’s preferred medium for drawing was charcoal. His ability to capture not only likeness but also the character of his sitters is shown to effect in this exhibition, with examples from the late 1970s in portraits of his son Lem and adopted daughter, Dominie, and from the 1980s and ’90s in portraits of his friends, the writer Philip Roth,  A Jew in Love (Philip Roth)  (1988–91) and the philosopher, Isaiah Berlin,  Isaiah Berlin  (1991–2). His painting  The Architects  (1981) a domestic portrait of the architects Professor Sir Colin (Sandy) St John Wilson (1922–2007) and his wife M.J. Long (b. 1939), reflects their constant friendship and patronage of his art. Many of the works in the exhibition are from the Wilsons’ private collection (now donated to Pallant House, Chichester). One such is a smaller work, the etching Melancholy after Van Gogh  (1977): Kitaj’s copy of a Vincent van Gogh drawing. Kitaj stated that the Van Gogh was one of six to eight painters that he studied every day.

The exhibition is filtered into ‘reflections’ of Kitaj’s art and it is the paintings from the last ten years of his life that create a further dimension to his artistic achievements. Works from the final year of his life reveal his own recollections, as in My Father (2007). In a remarkable series of works, mostly in his favoured square canvas format, Kitaj paints himself in the style of the painters he most admired: Rembrandt in Self-Portrait after Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portrait (2004); Masaccio, Self-Portrait (after Masaccio) (2005); Vincent van Gogh,After Vincent (2006); and others after Cimabue, Giotto, Israëls and Cézanne, all exhibited here and alone worth a special visit to the Gallery.

One of his final works,  Self-Portrait  (2007), chosen for the front cover of the exhibition catalogue, sums up Kitaj’s invigorating application and ability to capture personality in a few short strokes. This reflection of himself aged 74 years is intriguingly based on a much earlier work in the exhibition,  Portrait of R.B. Kita j (1981) by his friend, the artist Frank Auerbach (b. 1931).In Kitaj’s final work,  The Jewish Scream (Last Self-Portrait)  (2007) – a painting that pleased him very much – one witnesses an intense scrutiny of Kitaj by Kitaj. In this small and intimate work of candid critical observation, after 50 years of studying the human form in portraiture, perhaps Kitaj at last recognized himself.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Lakeland Arts Trust © R.B. Kitaj Estate

Editor's notes

Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections
9 July–8 October 2011
Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria, LA9 5AL
An 88-page full-colour catalogue has been published to accompany the exhibition:  Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections (Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2011), £15.00
The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England, the John Ellerman Foundation, Northern Rock Foundation, Marlborough, Foyle Foundation, the Granada Foundation, and the John S. Cohen Foundation.

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