The last time a Kitaj retrospective (the RB stands for Ronald Brooks-Benway) showed in London, at the Tate in 1996, the reviews were so notoriously vitriolic that he ended up quitting the UK for California, blaming the press for his wife’s fatal aneurysm. The critics’ charges were certainly damning: that his work was contrived and artificial, more like illustration than proper painting; and that his themes were self-obsessed and over-intellectualised. And yet, two decades on, it’s these very aspects that make his work so odd and fascinating – especially when it comes to questions of Jewishness, which is what this London half of the show (the rest is at Pallant House in Chichester) is all about.
In painting after painting here, Kitaj outlined a kind of contemporary mythology of Jewishness – a diasporic art, as he called it. Major works include an updated ‘wandering Jew’ archetype, luxuriating aboard a modern train while his medieval donkey fades away into nothingness; a scene of his own, Orthodox wedding, attended by fellow London School painters Auerbach, Kossoff, and Hockney; and a portentous melding of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ with Auschwitz imagery, full of apocalyptic menace. None of it really amounts to coherent, or even particularly profound, sensibility – but that’s precisely the point: that Jewish identity was something protean, constantly shifting, totally all over the place. Just like, in fact, the dissolving, kaleidoscopic colours Kitaj used, or his wonderfully blustery, chaotic line.
Sure, some of his more self-aggrandising moments can seem rather jejune – styling himself as the bookish philosopher Walter Benjamin, say, or as an LA-ified prophet figure, in a self-portrait painted just a few years before his suicide. And his more traditional charcoal portraits of famous Jewish subjects – from Philip Roth to Isaiah Berlin – aren’t particularly interesting. But overall, the exhibition’s sense of flux and drama, of Jewish history as a kind of mesmerising, hallucinatory theatre, is utterly compelling.