If Not, Not (1975-76)
R.B. Kitaj’s work similarly exposes the artist as we look at the world through his tortured lens. Like Emin’s quilts and prints, it is an exposure done “in favour of vividness of feeling” (Morphet, 31). Kitaj is different from the other contemporary British artists discussed in that he does not always literally incorporate words into the visual compositions of his artwork. However, words, as with Turner, have such an influential effect on the way that he constructs his images that one cannot fail to acknowledge him in the British tradition of the word.
Kitaj paints vivid narratives through the tense, elaborate atmospheres that he creates. Indeed, his images not only show, but also tell a scene. Many a time Kitaj has accompanying texts to his work. His texts often function as narratives to the paintings, and are written in the style of a short story. He incorporated the word out of a “concern for clarity” and a “particularity about the content of a given work” (Morphet, 16). Indeed, Kitaj, as other artists, valued the word for its directness in articulating both his personal feelings and his commentary on social oppression. Such commentaries largely focus on the Holocaust, “references to texts written by victims of persecution” and sexual violence (Morphet, 13). Thus one sees the common pairing of the personal with the universal, which in turn often conflate. As Morphet articulates, he “respond[s] to the crisis of our century by means of works combining a sense of the tragic with unusual exposure of the self” (27). Indeed, Kitaj inevitably revealed his own torment in the often agitated forms and trembling paint that he used to depict his grim characters.
His images are in themselves wordy. Once again, they are in dialogue with Turner’s in that they are largely about their “aura” (Ashbery, quoted by Morphet, 28). This is greatly accomplished through the excess or absence of movement. For example, in Sighs from Hell (1979), one captures the tense, dreadful atmosphere in the women’s static gazes that appear to freeze the space they inhabit. This affinity for narrative picturing is in part due to an “obsession with the book,” out of which Kitaj pulls both imagery and text for his work (Morphet, 13). His painting If Not, Not, for instance, was done as an illustration to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland.’ Once again, we see that British eagerness to lend a vision to a poem. In 2007 a book was compiled using this image to accompany the poem. “Like the poem, the painting can be taken apart” (Hoyem). And so, just as the poem is divided from page to page, the painting is isolated into several parts, only to be entirely “reproduced at the end of the poem” (Hoyem). Indeed, Kitaj’s painting is as layered in narrative and image as the poem itself, placing importance on the reading of the work. He treated images as he treated his words; he expected the viewer to decode the images as signs, to find a message in their aesthetics.
Kitaj encouraged what can be interpreted as a semiotic reading of his work, which he in turn facilitated with the use of plain language – both visually and literally. His subject matter is accessible: portraits, nudes, landscapes, urban streets, sports and domestic scenes. However, like a semiotician, he often manipulated such subjects: “ he include[d] the creation of new contexts for motifs originally of specific origin, [he adapted] pre-existing images by often disturbing distortion and [he invented] faces and figures” (Morphet, 10). In The Wedding, for instance, one is drawn to the grotesque, ghostly and trembling faces of the people surrounding the much smaller, hidden bride. Absorbed in a chaos of grim color and movement, celebration does not come to mind.
His texts take on a similar atmosphere. Morphet describes them as “unusual among serious art-related writing in the degree to which they are pervaded by the idioms of the speech of street, bar, workshop and sport stadium, as well as by those of mid-century film” (18-19). Kitaj’s use of language, as with the other artists, breaks from the more formal readings found in art criticism and the museum; indeed, he uses the word for plain communication.