How good was Kitaj? The reputation of almost every artist dips in the decade after his death, but for Kitaj, events leading to his suicide in 2007 make it particularly hard to see the work straightforwardly. Having lived in Britain since the 1960s, the American painter fled to Los Angeles in response to overwhelmingly negative criticism of his 1994 Tate retrospective, which was followed, weeks after the show closed, by the death from a brain aneurysm of his wife Sandra. Kitaj blamed the British critics – “they were aiming for me, but they got her instead”.
Never in doubt was Kitaj’s considerable gifts as a draughtsman. I remember, in 2007 at Ben Uri, a magisterial Kitaj sprawling charcoal nude easily holding its own alongside Auerbach and Freud. Kitaj was also master of smoky, densely textured, evocative pastels – “Femme du Peuple”, “A Jew in Love”, depicting Philip Roth, and a portrait of Isaiah Berlin are fine examples in this show.
Kitaj’s paintings, narrative and ideological in defiance of postwar fashion, are more problematic: ambitious and complex, they are often unresolved or sink under the weight of their references. “Books have haunted me, some say ruined me,” Kitaj said. This important exhibition, touring from Germany, acknowledges his overriding obsession with Jewish history. For the British showing, however, works are divided: London’s Jewish Museum explores Kitaj’s desperate identification with Jewish themes and displays the outstanding paintings “The Jewish Rider” and “Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees)”; Pallant House, under the subtitle, “Analyst for Our Time”, casts Kitaj more generally as a painter of modern life and its highlights include the popular, energetic portrait of David Hockney, “The Neo-Cubist”. Neither venue shrinks from Kitaj controversies, notably the artist’s fascination with the relationship between sexuality and history in difficult works such as the trio of nudes called “The Rise of Fascism” and “Self-portrait as a Woman”.