Illustrated companion

R.B. Kitaj was born in Ohio, U.S.A. and settled in London in 1959. He attended the Royal College of Art from 1959-62 where he had some influence on a generation of slightly younger artists which included David Hockney (who became a close friend) and others later associated with Pop Art in Britain.

A central aspect of Kitaj's subject matter from very early on has been the social and political crises of the twentieth century, the lives of the intellectuals and revolutionaries involved in them, and their consequences for other people. Interwoven with these are themes connected with the world of literature and thought, as contained in books and other forms of publication. Kitaj's art also reflects his involvement with other art, both of the past and the present. These themes are typically manifested in collage-like compositions in which disparate images, drawn from a wide range of visual and artistic, as well as social, historical and intellectual sources, are brought together to form richly poetic and allusive works. In their allusions to their sources Kitaj's paintings, as in this case, are often extremely complex and, to the uninitiated, obscure. But they are also invariably extremely sensuous in their visual effects, being notably beautiful in drawing, paint handling and, not least, colour.

This is one of a number of paintings made by Kitaj since about 1970. arising out of his increasing awareness of his own Jewishness, and of the history of the Jews. In particular, it is one of a group of three paintings from the early 1980s, each of which, according to the art historian Marco Livingstone, 'contains a narrative about the fate of the Jews, their exile and dispersal ... Only "Cecil Court" which treats those whose lives were set off-course, but not destroyed, by anti-semitic persecution, gives much cause for hope.' Kitaj himself wrote 'Among some other things I think I have a lot of experience of refugees from the Germans and that's how this painting came about. My dad and grandmother Kitaj and quite a few people dear to me just barely escaped'. Livingstone describes the picture as 'A reverie on the way in which [Kitaj's] own life has been touched by that of refugees from the holocaust ... a compendium of images rich in personal significance ...' The bearded figure in the foreground is the artist himself reclining on one of the classics of modern furniture design, Le Corbusier's chaise-longue of 1928. He is wearing the clothes in which he married the painter Sandra Fisher on 15 December 1983 at a London synagogue, an event which took place while this picture was being painted. The setting is Cecil Court, an alley noted for its many antiquarian and specialist bookshops, running between Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane, in the heart of the theatre district of London. These bookshops have been a constant haunt of the artist since his arrival in London. On the left, holding a bunch of flowers is Ernest Seligmann. a refugee who for many years ran a specialist art bookshop in Cecil Court, and who, Kitaj has said, 'sold me many art books and prints.' The figure opposite with a green book under his arm is Kitaj's recently deceased step-father, Dr Walter Kitaj. The atmosphere of the painting, appropriate to its setting, is highly theatrical, its structure suggesting a stage set in which scenes from the artist's life are being played out behind him. Kitaj has explained that this atmosphere, and the character of the people, was inspired by the peripatetic troupes of the Yiddisher Theatre in Central Europe, which he had heard about from his grandparents, but had also found extensively described in the diaries of the Czech novelist Franz Kafka.

The head of Seligmann is partly derived from a painting by Tintoretto in the Cathedral at Newcastle upon Tyne, and the whole concept of the painting is closely related to the two versions of the painting 'The Street' by the great French figure painter Balthus.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.250