© The Estate of R.B. Kitaj


R B Kitaj (1932 – 2007)


21.5 X 28 CM
Accession number


Kitaj, MOSES CONTRA FREUD (2005), 21.5 x 28 cm, oil on canvas

On a scale that is just bigger than life-size, R. B. Kitaj thrusts an old man’s face into the canvas; it is full to the edges of quick, bright white dabs of beard, broad pinky cheeks, an eyebrow raised, nostrils glowering above a clamped mouth. The face is in close-up, cropped to isolate it from an immediate context or identifiable associations. In this way, Kitaj plays on the likeness between an old Sigmund Freud and the prophet Moses, supposed to have to have lived to the age of 120. One great Jewish teacher faces another, each channeling a white-haired splendour. Ever confrontational, Kitaj is addressing the fact of his own final years, filtering personal existence through collective history.

Since the 1980s Kitaj had been vociferous about his place, as an outsider, in the Jewish Diaspora (to this end, he wrote two manifestos, a conscious echo of Modernism). Infamous as an advocate of artist-own labels, he argued for Jewish Art as a state of mind; that label alone served to contextualise a picture amid a particular network of connections, and a long roll-call of heroes (including Freud) provided an index for preoccupations about identity, genius, justice. ‘That painting enters what the Jewish philosopher Derrida (writing about Freud) calls ‘Archive Fever’, or what the Jewish art historian Aby Warburg called the ‘Social Memory’, at the very least in this painter’s (my) head.’[1]

Kitaj committed suicide in October 2007; this painting was exhibited as part of a memorial exhibition in the first gallery of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition 2008. In the last few years of his life in Los Angeles, Kitaj was approaching an ‘old-age’ style. He was making smaller pictures, with the paint brushed on thin and dry, leaving the canvas to show through. Californian brights zip over the surface - note the blips of Turquoise Cobalt here. Since the densely constructed works of his middle years, which laid a holy grail of references and quotations, Kitaj seems to have loosened up, stylistically at least, in the face of his own death.

Kitaj’s biographer, Marco Livingstone, extolls the late works: ‘Having for so long wanted to will an old-age style into existence, he magically stumbled upon it during his last years in Los Angeles, when as a septuagenarian he finally set aside his lifetime’s habit of working slowly on complex pictures and instead quickly and impulsively produced many dozens of small paintings with the rash vigour and excitement that an artist might usually expend on drawings.’[2]

Kitaj was a celebrated draughtsman. He was making a statement when he took up the then unfashionable practices of life drawing and pastels in the 1970s. Rather than make preparatory studies for his paintings, however, he would draw in paint straight on to the canvas. Characteristically, he gave the method a name, ‘Painting-Drawing’, summoning up a gang of practitioners: ‘late Cezanne Bathers, late Degas, Analytical Cubism, and an apotheosis in 1910-1920 Matisse.’[3]

‘I like the idea that my Painting-Drawings are difficult to finish. I like my paintings to creep toward THE END the longer they live in my studio, or die there.’[4]

[1] R.B. Kitaj, in R.B. Kitaj: Los Angeles Pictures (LA Louver Publications, Los Angeles 2003), p.13

[2] R.B. Kitaj: Little Pictures (exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, New York 2008), p.11

[3] Lambirth, Andrew, Kitaj (Philip WIlson Publishers, London 2004), p.89

[4] Lambirth, p.107