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Friday, 14 June 2013

R. B. Kitaj: Diasporist art

Diasporist art is the art of movement, change, migration, contradiction, dislocation and dissonance. R.B. Kitaj was both an artist and theorist of such art; writing two manifestos on the phenomenon and creating paintings which cleaved to his “own uncanny Jewish life of study, painting, unthinkable thoughts and near death …”

Because Kitaj’s childhood was spent in the US and much of his adult life in the UK, he was something of an outsider to both countries. Before becoming a student at the Royal College of Art, he travelled widely as a merchant seaman. Befriending the likes of David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, he spent the best part of 40 years in the UK as part of the self-titled ‘School of London’ before the death of his second wife Sandra Fisher, which he blamed on negative reviews of his Tate retrospective, led to a final move to Los Angeles where he was to die in his studio by his own hand.

Kitaj defined the Diasporist artist as living and painting in two or more societies at once. It therefore seems appropriate that this retrospective is split between two venues; the Jewish Museum in London and Pallant House in Chichester.

Many of the works displayed are multilayered in their form and meaning. As works intended to provoke conversation they require our eye to roam because of the difficulty in focusing on a single part of the image. When combined with written commentaries for his Tate retrospective (inspired by the dialogical nature of Midrash) this approach in part provoked the furious reaction of some critics to the exhibition. Kitaj, however, understood his intent in terms of Diasporism:

“Diaspora is often inconsistent and tense; schismatic contradiction animates each day. To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism. People are always saying the meanings in my pictures refuse to be fixed, to be settled, to be stable: that's Diasporism …”

Juan De La Cruz equates the uncertainty about their role and impact felt by US soldiers in Vietnam with that felt by St John of the Cross when torn between his loyalty to the church and his involvement in the reforms of St Teresa of Avila. Kitaj’s skill as a draughtsman can be seen in the wavering pose and questioning features of the conflicted African-American soldier on a transport plane around which Kitaj has collaged the crude scenes of wartime abuses which are troubling the soldier’s conscience. His name tag is the clue to the creative dissonance Kitaj introduced into the work by linking the soldier’s conflicts to those of John of the Cross.

The Church is called to be a pilgrim people journeying in the tension of the now and not yet. As a result, we have much, potentially, to learn from Diasporist art and yet our frequent tendency is to bathe in a nostalgic yearning for days of ‘glory’ past in Christendom. Diasporism is for Kitaj an engagement with the outsider; not Jews alone, but also homosexuals, women, Palestinians, Afro-Americans, and many of the Modernist artists he so admired. Such inclusivism challenges our nostalgia revealing the hidden oppression and abuse which can accompany the accumulation of authority and power.


Lou Reed - Strawman.

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