What makes a Jewish artist Jewish?

So what is it that makes Kitaj’s art Jewish? And why was it important to him to be known as a Jewish artist?

Max Kitaj in 1998 (photo credit: FERGUS GREER / WIKIPEDIA)
Max Kitaj in 1998
(photo credit: FERGUS GREER / WIKIPEDIA)
When I was at art school in London in the 1960s, R.B. Kitaj, along with David Hockney, Duncan Grant and others, was a name to be reckoned with. But unlike Hockney, for example, whose lifelike portraits and landscapes are easy to comprehend, Kitaj’s semi-figurative, semi-abstract works left you wondering what they meant.
Were they just personal statements about his life, or was there something deeper behind them? Later, he wrote an autobiography explaining both his life and his work. Now we understand that what was incomprehensible was wrapped up with his being Jewish, hence the name of his book.
The manuscript of this book, Confesions of an Old Jewish Painter, only discovered some years after he took his own life in 2007 in Los Angeles, was not published till 20 years after he died. Interestingly, too, there is a preface by his close friend David Hockney, now one of the most famous painters in the world.
So what is it that makes Kitaj’s art Jewish? And why was it important to him to be known as a Jewish artist? What made R.B. Kitaj a Jewish artist? It was not his lifestyle, which included a long list of prostitutes, even during his two marriages. Nor could it have been his first marriage, to non-Jewish Elsi. Nor was it his chosen career as a brilliant artist, after he had sailed the seas for five years and done two years army service in his native US. This autobiography, which was published some 20 years after he died in 2007, is an attempt to explain this intriguing puzzle.
Born in the US but living much of the time in England, Kitaj (his step-father’s name), excelled in semi-figurative, semi-abstract works, sold a great deal of his work for lots of money, mixed with the leading figures of the art world, and received honor after honor. Yet, as he is never tired of telling us, he felt he was missing something. That “something” was his Jewishness.
From where did this feeling emanate? Partly it was the antisemitism he experienced in England, subtle and understated as it sometimes was among artistic peers and critics. Partly through some of the people he mixed with, such as Isaiah Berlin, Leon Wieseltier and Philip Roth, partly from the books he read (and he was a book maven throughout his life) Buber, Leibovitz, Soloveitchik, Levinas and others.
There seems, in fact, to be two people inhabiting his singular body – the super-confident artist who used his fame and fortune for his own pleasure, a hedonist, a social creature who loved the company of other brilliant people especially, but not exclusively, in the artistic mileau in which he lived. The other Kitaj is the secret fornicator, the recluse, the searcher after private space, who meditates on the spiritual dimensions of his life.
Of course, as an artist, he had the ability to fuse these two competing sides in his painting. He can portray his wives and children, and his close friends, and yet also show the intimate room of the prostitutes he was particularly fond of.
He travels a lot, buying and selling houses to live in with his first and second wives. His lusts, however, never waver. When he is in Berkeley, California, on a teaching assignment, he recalls, “Berkeley was my Berlin 1929. Sex was real good, but it got real better in the person of a lovely teaching assistant named Sue Hall with long, straight, blond California Girl hair. It was Mad Love, as the Surrealists said. My Elsi was having her own fling with a Russian professor, a real Russian, so I felt less guilty....”
Underlying his narrative, however, is the constant search for the Jew within. It is not like other well-known “confessions.”
“In contrast to Augustine’s search for God,“ writes his editor, E.J. Gillen, “for Kitaj, ‘a deeply religious nonbeliever,’ it is a search for a secular Judaism.”
A major change in his awakening Jewish identity came with the Eichmann trial in 1961. Not long after, he became even more obsessed by his Jewish roots as an artist.
“During the sixties,” he writes “I had begun going deep into study of the Shoah and also its Modernist preambles. Kafka the Jew absorbed me in the vast Jewish genius of his Diaries and Letters. He remains to this day my favorite and greatest Jewish artist. If only I could infuse Kafka into my pictures without losing my own soul.”
At one point, Kitaj writes, “My ways were becoming more and more radically Jewish....” The discovery of his Jewish roots were parallel with his increasing sense of being an outsider in merry old England. “London’s schizophrenia about me was, as usual, like any normal culture’s schizophrenia about its hosted Jews,” he says.
He felt “very disliked by an art crowd of uncertain size, my vexatious art yearning and daring to become Jewish of all things, in alien England.”
His is a rollicking tale, told with much humor and self-revelation. A candid self-portrait of a highly energetic, critical, quirky mind that was torn between his love of painting and drawing and his passion for books and sex. Though he spent his time painting and drawing he also spent much time building his library. He was friends of literary people, poets and novelists. He even appears as a main character in Philip Roth’s novel, Sabbath’s Theater.
One of the major controversies he stirred up in the art world was when he decided to add a written commentary to his paintings, on the canvas. This act completely alienated him from those critics who were already antipathetic to him. The climax of this antipathy came in what Kitaj describes as “the War of the Tate.”
A major retrospective exhibition given him in the Tate Gallery, in 1994, brought a deeply divided wave of critical reviews. Apart from those who praised the painter as “Britain’s foremost living artist” were the many who thought Kitaj’s obsession with his Jewishness was “his greatest perversity. It would be found by some as alienating and wrong headed.” (M. James) One critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, even called his work and that of his contemporaries, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof, “shit,” to which the ever sensitive Kitaj responded, “Not the first or last time Jews would be likened to shit.”
Nothing of this sort happened to Arthur Szyk, although he did manage to get onto Hitler’s hit list.
That was because of a portrait this artist did of the Fuehrer, which infuriated him enough to order Szyk’s death. Luckily the artist was by then ensconced in the US and publishing his graphic barbs all over the free world. One didn’t need to ask whether or not Szyk was Jewish. His most popular work was The Haggadah. The original 250 copies made it the most expensive new book on the planet. His love of Judaism and use of its symbols and icons produced a stream of incredibly detailed illustrations, with an overload of meanings. His famous Haggadah was accompanied much later by a detailed commentary on the possible meanings behind each and every page of a book described by The Times of London as “the most important illustrated book of the century.”
And yet here lies the paradox. His fame as the illustrator of his Haggadah overshadowed the rest of his work, most of which was for the non-Jewish world. This included illustrations of books such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fables. But more centrally it included his works expressing his passion for freedom and liberty.
Even though he considered himself a Polish patriot, and did some of his characteristic work in Poland, praising their long- term positive attitude toward its flourishing Jewish community, the period he lived in was anything but friendly. Because of the encroaching threat of Nazism – both from without and also within Poland – he found himself in exile, firstly in England and ultimately in the US.
He went to England in 1937 to print his Haggadah, because it was too dangerous to print in Poland. Then he was off to the US, a trip he had anticipated long beforehand by creating a whole series of graphics on the life of George Washington. This meant that when he arrived in the US he was already well known. It only remained for him to continue his work for Jewish and national magazines. His fame spread and his work was seen by millions of Americans, especially in the war years in which he depicted the enemies of the Allies as monsters and gruesome creatures who could only lead the world to disaster. He showed the Jews as victims, and he was particularly concerned with exposing the West to the Holocaust as early as 1940. But side by siAde, he also depicted blacks in the US as victims of prejudice, which he contrasted with their being soldiers aiding America’s war effort.
Throughout his career, Szyk showed a particular warmth towards pre-state Israel as well as the country after it had been established. The Jews there were his heroes. Tough soldiers and farmers who appear in his Haggadah and elsewhere as the opposite of the Diaspora Jew. They were fighters as much as they were deeply connected to Judaism.
In this sense, his depictions of Jews was at one with his political views, which were close to Jabotinsky’s. Still, apart from a student trip to Palestine in 1914, Szyk never visited Israel. In this respect he was peculiarly similar to Kitaj, who was also deeply interested in Israel but never visited. Indeed, he wrote two tracts supporting something he called “Diasporism.”
There are some other similarities between these two master artists. Both lived and worked in alien lands and yet flourished. Both knew personally the evil of antisemitism and prejudice. Perhaps the most ironic was the fate of Syzk whose move to the US was motivated by his championing of liberty, which he saw was at the very basis of its Declaration of Independence. And yet at the end of his life, maybe an element in shortening his life, he was arraigned before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, raising questions about his membership in groups that were accused of being affiliated with Communism. Despite his denial of any association with Communism, and the fact that these groups were ultimately declared not to be subversive, the FBI investigation led to the loss of commissions. Within a year, he died of a heart attack.
The latest lavish volume is a tribute to Irvin Ungar, who has spent much of the last quarter of a century reviving interest in Syzk. Ungar’s dedication to the artist is not only for the obvious aesthetic reasons. He believes that the same prejudices that formed the background to much of his unique work threaten to return in our own day. This belief is splendidly expressed in every page of this book, which is a fine tribute to an artist who viewed his art as a weapon and himself as “a soldier in art.”