© The Estate of R.B. Kitaj


R B Kitaj (1932 – 2007)


123.5 X 122.5
Accession number


References – literary, historical, and art-historical – became a defining feature of R. B. Kitaj’s career. This painting was in British Council offices in Paris [1] during the 1994 Tate show which saw him roundly attacked for his insistence on discussing them in the gallery labels. What he saw as helpful explanation was widely taken as pretentious and counter-productively confusing, and Kitaj came to see his wife’s death the same year as being directly related to the shock of the critical panning. In addition to painting The Killer Critic Assassinated by his Widower, Even (1997) – defiantly plastered with cultural reference and provocatively shown at the Royal Academy with a £1m price tag – the already reclusive expatriate American responded by saying he’d have his phone cut off.

As a symbolic tool for connecting or disconnecting the artist’s studio with the outside world, it features in this painting as a kind of visual pun, its old-fashioned receiver and dial both updating and emphasising the historical distance of the bell and magic square in the German master Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I (c.1511). The painting is equally “after” a critical interpretation by art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), calling it “in a sense a spiritual self-portrait”, about “the tragic unrest of human creation” which might be summed up by the motto “even our groping will fail”. [2] Over the next four centuries, the engraving became implicated in the idea of melancholy as an essentially Romantic, scholarly, solitary, artistic condition.

By clearing away Dürer’s scattered geometrical apparatus, Kitaj makes space for a painting that is more clearly about painting. Rather than a compass, for example, the main figure – apparently male, as opposed to Dürer’s female – holds an upended paintbrush. This, it appears, has just been used to scrub out a failed portrait head in the foreground, and Kitaj has used the same paint in the top left of the canvas to stress that the frustration is his own. For the chronology of the 1994 show, he explained that 1986-89 had been a period in which he had felt

“more and more unsure of what I could do in painting – I felt that I had no method and I was driven nearly mad, experimenting with more painterly painting and feeling I was going nowhere.”[3]

A mild heart attack in 1989 forced him into taking regular morning walks, and slowly, Kitaj found a way out, identifying with written accounts of similar struggles undergone by artists such as Cézanne. By recasting Dürer’s original skinny, miserable hound as the “black dog” of depression Winston Churchill claimed to have been stalked by through his life, the painting draws in the wider melancholy of Twentieth Century History. Panofsky, a Jew, had been forced by Nazism to resign his teaching post and emigrate in 1933. That year, this extension of the historic narrative of Jewish exile – or Diaspora – also forced the Warburg Institute to move to London, [4]along with the scholar Edgar Wind, [5] whose lectures first stimulated the interest in iconography that fills this painting. Also in 1989, it led Kitaj to publish his First Diasporist Manifesto, as he increasingly defined himself as a Jew, and his style as “Diasporism”.

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] Private information, 2010.
[2] Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer (1943; Rev. ed., Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2005), pp.157 & 171
. [3] Richard Morphet, ed., R. B. Kitaj: A Retrospective [exh. cat.](London: Tate, 1994).
[5] Andrew Lambirth, Kitaj (London: Philip Wilson, 2004), p. 19.