Visu­al Arts

Kitaj Prints: A Cat­a­logue Raisonné

Jen­nifer Ramkalawon
  • Review
By – February 22, 2016

R. B. Kitaj (19322007), 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions