R.B. Kitaj

My Cities (An Experimental Drama)


R.B. Kitaj 1932–2007
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1832 x 1832 mm
frame: 2007 x 2009 x 63 mm
Purchased 1997


For his 1994 Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition, Kitaj wrote the following text to accompany this picture:

The three main actors represent myself in youth, middle age and old age. Behind them is a drop-curtain inscribed with historiated capital letters of cities where I've lived or loved. Over the course of a few years these capital letters (inspired by William Blake and the paintings of Victor Hugo) have been sublimated by white paint for the most part because they got too emphatic, so not they're not too easy to read or even see, some of them representing faded (whitened) memories anyway. The idea for the painting comes from a page I've kept as long as I can remember, torn from a copy of the old American magazine Theater Arts, showing a scene from what is described as 'an experimental drama', 'A Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden' by Thornton Wilder. The catwalk stage upon which the figures tread and stumble through life becomes the roof of a baseball dugout in which I've tried half-heartedly to draw some of my demons (Don't Ask!), colourless spectres only thinly isolated from the three leading players above as in a predella.
The painting develops an idea in Kitaj's 1960 A Reconstitution (private collection), whereby the map of the Americas is presented in a radically distorted form. In the earlier work, the map was prominent. In My Cities, however, it is virtually buried, running down the left side of the painting. The contour of the east coast of South America can be seen between the left and central figures. Although My Cities celebrates various places that were of special significance in Kitaj's life, only the Americas are represented in map form.

Sometime after the early 1960s, Kitaj developed an interest in William Blake's practice of combining imagery and script. The capital letters which can be discerned in this work recall the decorated capitals in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Starting in the top left corner and running downwards, the first letters of the names of cities include a large 'C' for Cleveland, Ohio, where Kitaj was born and lived for nine years; a small 'T' for Troy, New York, where his family next lived; and 'M' for Manhattan, the cosmopolitan centre of New York City. Continuing down the left side are letters relating to the South and Central American ports which Kitaj visited as a merchant seaman, including Havana, the city in which he lost his virginity in 1949. 'R' for Rio is attached to the coast of Brazil, and 'M' for Montevideo nestles in the red inlet of the River Plate. The letters which touch the central figure mark Kitaj's European years: the large 'V' above the figure denotes Vienna, where he studied in 1951-2; behind the right leg is a 'B' for Barcelona; the small 'O' above his head stands for Oxford, where he attended the Ruskin School in the late 1950s. The largest letter, an 'L' between the two right figures, represents London, where Kitaj has spent most of his adult life. Linked to that letter is a large 'P' for Paris, where he lived in 1981-2, and an 'A' for Amsterdam, a city he has visited often. Immediately in front of the central figure is a 'B' for Berkeley, California, where Kitaj taught in the late 1960s. The elderly figure at the right falls while reaching for a capital letter in golden yellow, which he fails to grasp. This is the Hebrew letter which, transliterated as 'Yod', is the equivalent to the English 'J' for Jerusalem. Kitaj painted this work at a time when he was rediscovering his Jewish identity. The predicament of his elderly self which he visualises here centres on his feeling that he can never reach Jerusalem.

Kitaj combines painting and drawing in a manner which recalls the techniques of Cézanne, Degas, Matisse and Giacometti. The lower or predella section of the picture relates to the theme of American baseball, which the artist views as a compelling human drama. The players sit in a limbo-like dugout, awaiting a call which may not come, or which, if it does, may lead to heaven or hell. Combined with the upper section, the predella contributes to a reading of the painting as an allegory of life.

Further reading:
Richard Morphet (ed.), R.B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1994, p.221, reproduced p.188 in colour

Terry Riggs
October 1997

Display caption

The narrative element in Kitaj's painting is frequently informed by a delight in the free-association of ideas and images. Kitaj has explained that in this work 'the three main actors represent myself in youth, middle-age and old-age. Behind them is a drop-curtain inscribed with historiated capital letters of cities where I've lived or loved... The catwalk stage on which the figures tread and stumble through life becomes the roof of a baseball dugout in which I've tried half-heartedly to draw some of my demons (Don't Ask!), colourless spectres only thinly isolated from the three leading players above.' The idea for the painting came from a magazine illustration of a scene from 'an experimental drama' by Thornton Wilder.

Gallery label, September 2004

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium weight, fairly open-weave linen canvas attached to a stretcher with metal staples at the rear, all of which are original. Although the stretcher has been significantly keyed out, it is still rigid, providing adequate support to the canvas and paint layers. The canvas was commercially primed with an acrylic emulsion gesso primer, probably in several layers, although the canvas weave texture is still very evident through it.

There are several areas in the painting, especially in the monochrome triangle at the bottom of the work, where there are no paint layers at all and the white seen is the ground layer. The black outlines of all the forms were first applied to the primed canvas with what appears to have been a combination of pastel stick (or some other graphic material) and a thinned black paint. The paint layers were then applied by brush over this drawing. The first areas laid down were the thin layers of solid colour with paints of rather lean consistency, and then, when these layers had dried completely, by the white and light blue paint, which would have been far more paste-like in consistency and were probably used straight from the tube. Most of this paint was applied as distinct brushstrokes but where they overlap a wet-in-wet technique was used to blend them. All the paint is predominantly opaque, although it has been thinned so much in some areas that it is possible to see the underdrawing beneath. The gloss is varied, from an extremely dry and matt surface quality in the thinned areas to a fairly high gloss in the upper white brushstrokes. The artist has signed and dated the work at the back of the painting along the top turnover edge of primed canvas.

The painting is not varnished. The stained wooden frame is original to the work and was made by Stewart Heslop Frames. The painting is currently in an excellent condition. However, the exposed black graphic material is extremely vulnerable to removal by abrasion and for this reason the painting was recently placed behind low reflecting glass to ensure that the painting is not damaged in the future.

Tom Learner
October 1997

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