Tuesday, 16 July 2013

R B Kitaj, Pallant House

Looking at Kitaj at Pallant House I was reminded of T S Eliot’s  ‘dissociation of sensibility’ - the idea, roughly speaking,  that somewhere in our cultural history feeling and intellect became uncoupled. For a poet like Donne, an emotional experience could take the form of an intellectual adventure: the search for religious truth, for example, occupies mind and heart symbiotically, and we feel that in the pulse of the verse rhythms.  But now emotion goes one way – prompted by the stimulus of the quick hit – and intellect is left to find its own dessicated form elsewhere. Kitaj’s paintings represent a new synthesis of brain and emotion. Take ‘The Killer-Critic Assasinated by his Widower, Even’ (1997) – the work prompted by the recent death from an aneurism of Kitaj’s wife Sandra, which Kitaj blamed on the negative critical reactions to his Tate Retrospective of 1994. Clashing colour, gestural scrawl and grotesque imagery communicate a tactile, trembling fury. Yet it’s a fury felt through a dense web of association: the title alludes to Duchamp, the central image to Manet’s 'Assassination of Maximilian' (while the victim’s hands surely point to Goya’s 3rd May – Kitaj had a long and intense immersion in Spanish culture). Modernist collage points us in further directions, to revenge tragedy, to Erasmus and Gogol and their subjects of fools and madmen. The heart’s passion quickens the mind’s dance. It’s a language we are more used to in literature, in particular in Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, at once the scrapbook of a hyper-educated memory and the verbal reflex of mental disintegration. Densely allusive art requires time to unpack in the mind, but like Eliot, Kitaj can deploy his art to convey sudden sensuous beauty. ‘Degas’ (1980), shown in a room devoted to Kitaj’s figurative pastels, is a moving and beautiful work showing the hand and eye of an Old Master. Some excerpts of John Ashbery’s essay on the artist are reproduced in Paris Review: