This painting’s composition is based on a grid made up of nine squares in three rows of three. In each square is a face, with two faces appearing in profile in the central square. Each face is cartoon-like and sketchily painted in muted colours. The artist’s method of smudging colours and his use of heavily diluted oil paint, which has left drip marks on the canvas, create an impression of fluidity and spontaneity. The borders of the grid are blurred as the different background colours of the squares seem to spill into one another.

Kitaj, who was born in Cleveland, USA, produced this work early in his career, while he was at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. He had moved to Britain in 1958 to study art, having served for two years in the American army in Europe. ‘This was the first modern art I committed’, he later wrote of Erasmus Variations. ‘[I]t was the first synthesis of some of the ideated strands that would probably never leave me or my art: Symbolism-Surrealism, the specters in books, and the woman question among others.’ (Quoted in Livingstone, 2010, p.232.)

The work’s title refers to the initial source for the image, a series of doodles the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) made in the margins of a manuscript he was annotating. Kitaj encountered Erasmus’s scribbled faces in one of the first books he read while in Oxford, the biography of the scholar by the historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945). Kitaj’s composition follows the grid-like arrangement imposed on Erasmus’s doodles in the reproduction in Huizinga’s book, and his faces have broadly the same exaggerated features as those drawn by Erasmus.

To Kitaj, Erasmus’s absent-minded doodles suggested a prefiguration of the method of automatic drawing (that is, drawing made without the intervention of reason) that would later be favoured by the surrealists. In Erasmus Variations, the artist employs a loose and gestural method of painting evocative of abstract expressionism. The work thus links the surrealist belief that automatic drawing provides an insight into the workings of the mind with a similar idea implied in gestural abstraction: that the artwork reveals the personality of the artist (Livingstone, 2010, pp.16–7).

Kitaj derived the style and technique of painting that he used in Erasmus Variations specifically from the Dutch-born abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning (1904–97), in particular the images of female nudes de Kooning made in the late 1940s. Kitaj explained: ‘De Kooning’s surreal-automatic ‘Women’ were my favourite action paintings of the School of New York, a recalcitrant or truant of which I had been during my Manhattan years, and so I adapted something of that mode here; Double Dutch (Erasmus and De Kooning, both of Rotterdam).’ (Quoted in Livingstone, 2010, p.232.)

As much of Kitaj’s subsequent output, this painting is autobiographical in content. Although not designed as portraits, each distorted face suggested to the artist the identity of a woman he had known. ‘These marks were but fanciful fronts for sweet secrets of from my nether or surreal life’, he wrote, ‘[as] I assigned each disguised visage in this picture to a Woman I had known in fleeting encounters.’ (Quoted in Livingstone, 2010, p.232).

Further reading:
Marco Livingstone, ‘Iconology as a Theme in the Early Work of R.B. Kitaj’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.122, no.928, July 1980, pp.488–97, reproduced p.489.
Richard Morphet (ed.), R. B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, reproduced p.69.
Marco Livingstone, Kitaj, London 2010, reproduced [p.65].

Alice Sanger
December 2010