‘Jewish cultural life with all its disasters, brilliance, learning, evasions and daring has conducted me and my art like an excited zombie or Golem,” the painter R.B. Kitaj wrote in a commentary to his early painting “The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg,” a stark collagelike canvas named for the Jewish revolutionary leader who was assassinated in Berlin in 1919. At his first solo show, at the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery in London in 1963, Kitaj simply presented the work as a history painting; 30 years later, he reinterpreted the assassination as foretelling the mass murder of European Jews and dedicated the work to the female victims of the Holocaust.
“Rosa Luxemburg” is one of the first works that greet visitors to “Obsessions,” the Berlin Jewish Museum’s excellent retrospective of the Ohio-born artist Kitaj, who spent most of his career in London and committed suicide in 2007 at the age of 74. The show, which runs until late January before moving on to London and to Hamburg, Germany, brings together more than 130 paintings and graphic works, culled from museums and private collections in Europe and America, as well as from the artist’s estate and archive. The works are displayed throughout 10 themed rooms. Curated by Eckhart Gillen, it makes a compelling argument for Kitaj as a radically Jewish painter and a master of outsider art.
While such qualities have long been evident in Kitaj’s work, this exhibit is noteworthy for using the artist’s absorption in Jewish themes as a point of departure. “This is the first time that Kitaj’s work isn’t being looked at simply in terms of form and color, but rather we’ve provided access to his main project. It’s essential to get a view into Kitaj’s Jewish identity,” explained Margret Kampmeyer, an art historian who worked as the project manager for the exhibition.
Kitaj is not a household name in Germany, Kampmeyer explained, adding that she herself had little more than a passing knowledge of Kitaj as a figure associated with the London School — a term he coined in 1976 to describe the circle of figurative painters that included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Kitaj himself — and with Pop Art.
As the first retrospective to be mounted without the direct input of the artist, “Obsessions” includes early works that Kitaj came to dislike in his later years, providing a fuller portrait of the artist than has been the case in previous exhibitions. Kampmeyer related that the artist David Hockney, a lifelong friend of Kitaj’s, visited recently and remarked that he had never seen such a full range of his contemporary’s work.