R.B. Kitaj comments on his works:
The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) 1972-74
Dear Benjamin is now a truly chewed over cultural spectre, not least in art writing. I started to chew on him myself in the late sixties after having fallen upon him, before the deluge, in a publication of the Leo Baeck Institute. His wonderful and difficult montage, pressing together quickening tableaux from texts and from a disjunct world, were called citations by a disciple of his who also conceded that the picture puzzle distinguished everything he wrote. His personality began to speak to the painter in me the adventure of his addiction to fragment life, the allusive and incomplete nature of his work (Gestapo at his heels) had slowly formed up into one of those heterodox legacies upon which I like to stake my own dubious art claims against better judgements of how one is permitted to burden the crazy drama of painting. When I first showed this picture, a reviewer even began his attack by choking on the title, which he said I'd stolen from a sociological treatise having nothing to do with Benjamin. The critic was dead right. Benjamin thrills me in no small measure because he does not cohere, and beautifully. He was one of those lonely few who lived out Flaubert's instruction: "Not to resemble one's neighbor; that is everything. A lot of people, a whole lot of artists would wish for that, I think, but it eludes us more than we imagine it does. His angry neighbors drove him to kill himself in chat very Autumn Of 1940 which saw the Fall of France and in which I've set this picture. some of my working notes for which follow below. I feel I ought to apologise for this type of painting because it's such a rouged and puerile reflection upon such vivid personeity, but maybe I won't (apologise); maybe a painter who snips off a length of picture from the flawed scroll which is ever depicting the train of his interest, as Benjamin did, may put a daemon spirit like Benjamin in the picture.
Citations, (sketchbook entries for Benjamin painting)
B's montage practice, which he called 'agitational usage'. See fractured suggestion in trompe l'oeil example ... (things covering up, overlapping other things, fooling the eye in painting depiction ... ).
THE DIORAMA ('for the last time, in these DIORAMAS, the worker appeared, away from his class, as a STAGE EXTRA in an IDYLL'). Painting as Diorama/Tableau (ask Cleveland Museum if they still have those dioramas they showed in my childhood; also sculpture of workmen (by Max Kalish?) I must have seen those dioramas as B was about to die in 1940.)
Cafe life as an AUTUMNAL REVERIE of bourgeois society; NATURE MORTE; cafe as OPEN AIR INTERIOR (past which the LIFE OF THE CITY moves along).
Collage implication in B's treatment of THE BARRICADE; B cites barricade metaphors like: 'broken irregular outlines, profiles of strange constructions' from Les Miserables.
PILE UP (BARRICADE) of figures as in THE MOVIES POSTER.
THE SMOKERS; THE PASSERBY; MEN ABOUT TOWN; RUMOUR and IDLENESS; THE COCOTTE IN HER DISGUISES; OCCASIONAL CONSPIRATORS; THE SWIFT GLANCE; GROWD AS REFUGE; CHANCE (as a guide through city life); PROSTITUTION (the life of the erotic person in the crowd); FETISHISM (as the 'vital nerve of fashion'); PROLETARIAT driven Out Of CENTRAL PARIS (title) leading to emergence of a RED BELT (margins of picture).
ANGEL OF HISTORY IDLE STROLLER face turned 'toward the past', blown backwards into the future by the storm of progress while the pile of ruins before him grows skyward (PILE UP of images).
MAN WITH HEARING AID ... THE POLICE SPY/ SECRET AGENT.
THE MAN WALKING AWAY ... B's suicide? (the flaneur's last journey: death ... 'to the depths of the unknown to find something new' from Flowers of Evil).
If Not, Not, 1975-76
Two main strands come together in the picture. One is a certain allegiance to Eliot's Waste Land and its (largely unexplained) family of loose assemblage. Eliot used, in his turn, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the dying figures among the trees to the right of my canvas make similar use of Conrad's bodies strewn along the riverbank.
Eliot said of his poem, 'To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; if is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.' So is my picture ... but the grouse here has to do with what Winston Churchill called 'the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world' ... the murder of the European Jews. That is the second main theme, presided over by the Auschwitz gatehouse. This theme coincides with that view of The Waste Land as an antechamber to hell. There are (disputed) passages in the poem where drowning, 'Death by Water', is associated with either the death of someone close to the poet or the death of a Jew ... like most of the poem, these passages are fraught with innuendo.
The man in the bed with a child is a self portrait detail in the waste like middle ground which also shows scattered fragments (such as the broken Matisse bust) being sucked up as if in a sea. This sense of strewn and abandoned things and people was suggested by a Bassano painting, of which I had a detail, showing a ground after a battle. Love survives broken life 'amid the craters' as someone said of the poem.
The general look of the picture was inspired by my first look at Giorgione's Tempesta on a visit to Venice, of which the little pool at the heart of my canvas is a reminder. However, water, which often symbolizes renewed life, is here stagnant in the shadow of a horror ... also not unlike Eliot's treatment of water. My journal for this painting reports a train journey someone took from Budapest to Auschwitz to get a sense of what the doomed could see through the slats of their cattle cars ('beautiful, simply beautiful countryside') ... I don't know who said it. Since then, I've read that Buchenwald was constructed on the very hill where Geothe often walked with Eckermann.
Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees), 1983-84
I have very little experience of water lilies or ballet dancers or jazz or long walks or wine or loneliness. Among some other things, I think I have a lot of experience of refugees from the Germans, and that's how this painting came about. My dad and grandmother Kitaj and quite a few people dear to me just barely escaped. One of the first friends to see this painting (a 75 year old refugee) said the people in it looked meshugge. They were largely cast from the beautiful craziness of Yiddish Theater, which I only knew at second hand from my maternal grandparents, but fell upon in Kafka, who gives over a hundred loving pages of his diaries to a grand passion for these shabby troupes, despised by aesthetes and Hebraists who were revolted by them. Painters are in the business of 'baking' (a plot device from Y.T.) pictures whose perpetration may be sparked by unlikely agents of conversion, which in Kafka's case really caused his art to turn when he met these players. Excited, according to my own habits, I began (in Paris, California, N.Y., Jerusalem and London), to collect scarce books and pictures about this shadow world, the trail of which has not quite grown cold in my own past life. I would stage some of the syntactical strategies and mysteries and lunacies of Yiddish Theater in a London Refuge, Cecil Court, the book alley I'd prowled all my life in England, which fed so much into my dubious pictures from its shops and their refugee booksellers, especially the late Mr Seligmann (holding flowers at left) who sold me many art book and prints. Another day I'll tell who the other people in the painting are supposed to be, whether aesthetes find such midrashic gloss and emendation revolting or not. For now, I must confess that I wish I could continue to paint the shopsigns in the spirit of a distinction made by my favorite antisemite, Pound, who said that symbols quickly exhaust their references, while signs renew theirs.
Amerika (Baseball), 1983-85
'The day Custer lost at the Little Big Horn, the Chicago White Sox beat the Cincinnati Red Legs, 3-2.' CHARLES 0. FINLEY
About a year after I began this painting, a famous neo-Cubist friend took us to see a seventeenth century Chinese handscroll by Wang Hui at the British Museum, which my friend said had changed his life. This very long (70 feet) Royal Inspection Tour down the Yangtse had confirmed for my friend his belief that one must (he must) set about representing the element of time in painted depiction, as Picasso had done to the end of his many days.
I thought the scroll was terrific but it didn't change my life. As you can guess, there were an awful lot of tiny people going about their business along that river, and what it tended to confirm for me was the unusual fun I was having at home, painting a whole lot of little baseball players on a vast metaphoric field, because painting is very rarely what I would call fun, in my own experience of doing it. The depiction of time, different kinds of time, had already deeply scored my baseball picture.
For most of my life I've lived thousands of miles away from real baseball and I've got to recollect such things past from an English setting which has warped time through these thirty years of mostly exile from the Summer Game; in fact, since my poor lost tribe of Cleveland Indians last won a pennant and began their three decades of decline by blowing four straight to Leo Durocher's Giants in the '54 Series. I sometimes fear my own decline began in that fall Of 1954. Proust's sessions of sweet silent thought have deluded me into painted remembrance and I've not taken Satchel Paige's advice: 'Don't look back; something may be gaining on you.' Any baseball folk over the age of 50 who look hard will find that great man (Paige, not Proust) in my painting, as I remember him when Bill Veeck brought him up to Cleveland from the Negro League in old age.
This painting's title begins with Amerika, as will some others from time to time. Unlike Kafka, I've been there, know it well and get quite homesick for it, but Kafka's crazed, beautiful, unfinished book inspired me, years ago, to look at my exilic self in changeful ways. I would attempt to paint that selfhood, to reconstruct its homeland, as painters have always worked on machines, in the studio after sketches; only, my sketches would be sensory, invisible. One little sensation, for instance, arriving after I'd begun to dispose the players one sees from afar, was an unaccountable urge to open up the centre, either to show a clearing in the King's blue field or to endanger the players, to suck them toward a barren middle ground I don't know which or why; not yet I don't ...
I decided to paraphrase both Velazquez and Kafka, and so the great fieldscape of the Boar Hunt at London combined with a Cuckoo Nature Theatre of Ohio and upstate New York; the Velazquez setting reminded me of the low hills of home which often framed the playing fields where we toiled at pick up ball long after dusk blinded up. I was going to say how the little figures on that broad plain stand for the hundred ways that baseball lives mirror our own, teach me lessons even art ones, but I think I'll leave that to the novelists for now and give these last words to Max Brod: 'In enigmatic language Kafka used to hint smilingly, that within this "almost limitless" theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.'
- Kitaj, from Marco Livingstone, "R.B. Kitaj"