Essays by James Hyman

The Chimney that Chills: R.B.Kitaj and the Holocaust

The Chimney that Chills: R.B.Kitaj and the Holocaust


James Hyman
Winter 1993

The following article is a revised version of a BBC World Service programme first broadcast in March 1992. It was one of a series of six programmes in which James Hyman looked at a single artist and concentrated on a specific theme. It was curious talking about pictures on the radio, trying to make them come alive to an audience. In writing the Kitaj programme, it seemed an appropriate metaphor for this blindness to begin with a painting that had not even left the artist's studio and which had received no public visibility whatsoever. This picture appears above and on the cover. Readers may be interested to note that a retrospective of Kitaj's work will be held at the Tate from June 15th to September 4th, 1994.


On a recent visit to the London studio of the American-born painter R.B. Kitaj (b. 1932), the artist showed me a remarkable new painting. Large and brightly coloured, it commemorates the artist's marriage ceremony. The setting is the oldest Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, Bevis Marks. In the centre of the picture, under the Chuppah, stand Kitaj and his bride, fellow painter Sandra Fischer. Surrounding them are some of their friends. They provide a role call of some of England's most famous painters. We are shown Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, Frank Auerbach, an orphaned Jewish refugee from Berlin; and Leon Kossoff, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. To one side, wearing his borrowed skull cap, is Kitaj's best man, his close friend since student days in the early sixties, David Hockney.

The painting is a joyful celebration of all that Kitaj holds dear - a declaration of love and friendship and a celeration of the worlds of painting and Judaism. But it is more than this. The varied origins of its subjects suggest a cosmopolitanism, whilst the identity f the main figures as Jews takes us towards one of Kitaj's great passions, the experience of the Jew outside Israel, the experience of the Jew in the Diaspora, in dispersal. Kitaj, one of the most erudite of artists, has spent much of the last twenty years exploring Jewish history, especially Jewish identity outside Israel. Brought up in an assimilated secular environment in Cleveland, Ohio, he has the zeal of the born-again, or what he has described as the 'new-Jew'. This is a passion grounded above all in a thirst for Jewish culture, an identification with figures such as Kafka and a fascination with Jewish intellectuals such as the scholar, Gershom Scholem. Kitaj's paintings and the commentaries that he often writes as an accompaniment form one of the most moving bodies of work to deal with twentieth century Jewish experience. It certainly stands out in the field of the visual arts.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote what he called a 'First Diasporist Manifesto'. More personal credo than rallying cry, it was a touching attempt to address his own identity and sense of place as a Jew in the Diaspora. In it Kitaj explains: `Diaspora is most often associated with Jews and their two thousand-year old scattering among the nations (longer by other accounts). Exile.., has become a way of life and death - consonant with Jewishness itself, even though Israel is reborn... I think that memories, events and beliefs are sacred dreams for paintings and so the mode of my life is translated into pictures.'

Kitaj, then, is a daring painter, a painter unafraid to scrutinise his religious make-up and unafraid to address the troubling questions, such as the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, the tensions between immigrant and host culture, and the significance, today, of the Holocaust. Exploring what makes one a Jew at all Kitaj wrote: 'After almost a lifetime as a painter, my painting thoughts begin to dwell on whether or not the Jews are a nation, or a state of mind, or what they are; among the answers lies an aesthetic, I sometimes think, which drives me in style and uncertainty towards that shore. Many, but not all, of my recent pictures and good intentions are stacked in that leaking rowboat whose oars I pull excitedly, fearful of sinking in unknown waters.'

Part of Kitaj's daring comes from his chosen medium. In thinking about work that addresses the Holocaust one tends to think of literature, such as the writing of Primo Levi, or poetry, notably the verse of Paul C. There are few painters who have been able to address twentieth century Jewish experience with anything approaching Kitaj's sophistication and even fewer who have been able to find anything positive, even redemptive, in the experience which they address.

For what is so impressive about Kitaj's paintings is that they are, above all, a celebration of the vigour of Jewish intellectual thought. They provide a kaleidoscope of popular and arcane references with a wide range of often oblique quotations. These have ranged from early scholars like the Rabbis Akiva and Hillel, through the mysticism of the Kabbalah to pre-war middle European life and thought. Kitaj does not just commemorate an intellectual milieu shattered by the Nazis.

By picking up the pieces, by returning to the great writers of the mid century, Kitaj implicitly celebrates their continuing vigour. Kitaj is preoccupied with this Twentieth Century World, the world of the scientist Albert Einstein, the writer and theorist Walter Benjamin and the religious philosopher Martin Buber.

But underlying Kitaj's enthusiasm is a spirit moulded by events. Kitaj is by no means blind to the black shadows and dark clouds cast by Auschwitz's chimneys. The Holocaust is never far off. Kitaj has written: "After 1945, the world changed for the Jews. If your world changes, your aintings change. Your hand, charged by heart and mind, goes at its task in new ways... After 1945...Jewish painting has new things to face, events never faced before, a profoundly different world view, an art to remodel."

But Kitaj does not just use the wire fences, the towers and railway tracks as general images of the Holocaust. He has gone further than this in his search for a specific symbol to stand for Jewish suffering, a symbol with the potency for the Jew that the Crucifixion, has for the Christian. The chimney becomes an icon, a symbol of the Shoah. Often it appears either as a shape or a silhouette. By using the chimney as a symbol, Kitaj avoids crude graphic depiction in his attempts to face the facts of Jewish experience. The chimney becomes a metaphor not just for the suffering of the Jews but for the horror of this age of the innocent victim. But Kitaj achieves far more than this, something which takes his work onto another, even more significant level. As with the Crucifixion for the Christian, so the chimney, for Kitaj, is not simply an icon of suffering. Kitaj's great contribution, and it is a remarkable one, is to lead us beyond the tragedy. The fact that Kitaj is able to be so positive makes his work not just touching but inspiring. For in Kitaj's hands the chimney becomes an image of redemption. Kitaj has explained that: 'According to Martin Buber, the innermost meaning of the Holocaust was a message from God for a turning and a renewal. I thought that the message from God had not reached me yet but since my art has turned and renewed itself, maybe I got he message after all.'

Kitaj undoubtedly has a thirst for knowledge. But he is never simply an archaeologist. He has a fascination for history but he is never merely concerned with uncovenng a buried culture. Kitaj succeeds in going beyond merely representing a lost age. Through his passion he recreates and rejuvenates a culture. Kitaj's achievement is in showing his tradition as a vital presence, something of continuing relevance and potency. His painting shines like a beacon through the heavy clouds cast by the Holocaust. We look back, with Kitaj, in sorrow perhaps, but in joy as well.

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