The Jewish Museum Berlin presents the first comprehensive exhibition of the œuvre of painter R.B. Kitaj after his death in 2007. This is the first retrospective show in 14 years.
The American artist Kitaj – along with his friends David Hockney, Lucian Freud, and others – was among the pioneers of figurative painting and is today seen as one of the great mavericks of 20th century art. R.B. Kitaj created an extensive oeuvre with strong autobiographical traits that explore central questions of the 20th century.
Kitaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in the left-wing intellectual milieu of his parental home. His mother, Jeanne Brooks, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, his stepfather Walter Kitaj fled Nazi persecution in Vienna to the United States. At the age of seventeen, Kitaj went to sea. He later began to study art in New York and continued his studies in Vienna, Oxford, and London.
The guiding theme of R.B. Kitaj’s life and work is identity in the modern age. Kitaj’s obsessive grappling with his own “Jewishness” coupled with his study of role models such as Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Walter Benjamin led him to develop an idea and concept for “Jewish” art, at whose core was the experience of diasporic existence.
For Kitaj, art was a medium of emotional and intellectual exploration. He himself was an avid collector of books and found themes and motifs in intellectual history and literature, but also in the works of great artists, whose fragmentary images appeared in his works placed in a new context. R.B. Kitaj’s colorful and provocative compositions are picture puzzles with lifeworld and philosophical references.
Kitaj saw commenting on and interpreting his works as part of his artistic practice, which he felt immersed him in the Jewish tradition of interpreting of biblical texts. The artist’s extensive personal archive from his “Yellow Studio” in Los Angeles was made available for the first time for this major retrospective at the Jewish Museum Berlin. His estate, which is now kept at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), proved to be an important key to understanding his complex images.
The retrospective was made possible thanks to the generous support of the loaners, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid. It shows an overview of all the periods of Kitaj’s extensive oeuvre with about 130 paintings, prints, and drawings.
An accompanying booklet, an audio guide, and a documentation of his œuvre offer different levels of access to the artist’s world of images. Visitors can read, in the booklet, about the most important references in the paintings, while they listen, in the audio guide, to the artist as he comments on his images. The documentation of his œuvre assembles images and other material on selected paintings. Most of the documents