R. B. Kitaj (1932−2007), known to many through his Diasporist manifestos, was a prolific artist in many mediums. This volume is a definitive study of his prints — screenprints, lithographs, etchings, and engravings. Made in collaboration with master printers in England where the American-born Kitaj lived for more than forty years, the prints are products of complicated layers of color, shading, and carefully selected papers. This book was originally published in England by the British Museum, to which Kitaj bequeathed his collection. Over 270 prints are reproduced here along with a “catalogue raisonné” (extensive notes) at the end.
Kitaj painted throughout the 1960s and 70s, but he produced a large number of prints during those decades as well. While the prints are a significant part of his oeuvre, Kitaj, according to the director of the British Museum, was “notoriously ambivalent” about them. Ramkalawon also states that while “bold, fresh, witty and incisive,” the prints are to be “decoded, interpreted, savoured and relished.”
Grouped both chronologically and by series, the 1960s prints include such titles as “Mahler Becomes Politics, Beisbol,” “Some Poets,” and “Struggle in the West: the Bombing of London.” Perhaps the most intriguing series is the 1969 “In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part,” which features prints of actual book covers. Reflecting Kitaj’s eclectic intellectual interests, these prints depict works by authors such as Thornton Wilder, Wyndham Lewis, Margaret Mead, Vachel Lindsey, and Isaac Babel. Surprisingly, Kitaj includes The Jewish Question, the anti-semitic publication by Henry Ford. He later reworked that cover with a depiction of Jesus in the center and included it in a larger screenprint and collage with a photo of himself and his son Max in the Second Diasporist Manifesto.
The final section deals with Kitaj’s last series of prints, inspired by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s biblical portraits. The figures of Abraham, Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and others are depicted in monochromatic line-drawing lithographs; the style isn’t noticeably distinguishable from that used in Kitaj’s character portraits of himself, his mother, or even former president Bill Clinton.
Anyone looking for a discussion of Kitaj’s place as a major, albeit controversial, artist of the second half of the twentieth century — considered along with Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon — will not find much evidence in this volume. Neither is there evidence of Kitaj’s consciousness of Jewish identity as witnessed in his Diasporist manifestos; the author references Kitaj’s Jewishness only in a footnote to her introductory essay.
Instead, Ramkalawon concentrates on understanding and describing the text and symbols in each of the prints in order to increase appreciation of Kitaj’s art. She is clearly a Kitaj admirer: “Time spent carefully interpreting Kitaj’s world and mindset is an ultimately enriching, uplifting and rewarding experience.” There is certainly much to ponder in this beautifully executed study of the British Museum’s Kitaj Collection.