R.B. Kitaj

The Orientalist


Not on display

R.B. Kitaj 1932–2007
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2438 × 768 mm
frame: 2595 × 925 × 110 mm
Purchased 1977

Display caption

'The Orientalist' belongs to Kitaj's portraits, including 'The Jew' and 'The Greek' that relate to the theme of the expatriate. Kitaj is himself an expatriate. He was born in Ohio and has spent most of his life living between America and Britain, caught between two cultures. His stepfather, a Viennese research chemist, was a refugee from Nazi Europe. 'The Orientalist' was an invention, but for Kitaj he represents a real character, evoking the expatriate's sense of displacement. The artist has written: 'Some people live out their lives in places they don't come from, assigning themselves to a strange race of men and an alien sense of land and city... The real subject here is un-at-homeness'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 96 × 30 1/4 (244.0 × 76.5)
Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1977
Exh: R. B. Kitaj: Pictures, Marlborough Fine Art, April–June 1977 (25, repr. in colour); R. B. Kitaj: Bilder, Marlborough Galerie A.G., Zürich, June–July 1977 (25, repr. in colour)

R. B. Kitaj wrote (letter post marked 4 April 1978 in answer to question from the compiler):

'The Orientalist was painted in London during much of 1976 and the early months of 1977. There were no drawings made for it.

'It was one of the first of the tall narrow pictures I mean to pursue. The former was supposed to coincide with the upright human form but I have liked that shape well enough to use it also for seated figures like the Orientalist.

‘I suppose the related pictures are the Arabist, Smyrna Greek, the Jew and the Hispanist ... all expatriates like me. The Orientalist and the Arabist are invented creatures after types of Europeans who lived their lives in the East. The Greek was posed by Nikos Stangos and the Hispanist by another expatriate friend who is, herself a Hispanist.’

In an earlier letter (post marked 8 June 1977) Kitaj had written: 'If this picture (with its title), speaks for itself, so much the better. Along with some other recent pictures of mine, it is about expatriation and about a life which may only and properly exist in the mind; in imagination. To the extent the character is an invention and a fantasy but he does also stand for the very real type of orientalist who lived and no doubt still lives in the world. When the painting was begun a few years ago, Trevor-Roper's amazing book about Backhouse [A Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse, London 1976] had not come out but many other things in that line had come into my hands: Burton, Doughty, Charles de Foucauld and Chinnery and always, Freya Stark. I think her Things Seen in the Hadhramaut is my favourite. A useful and very simple compilation of this theme was British Orientalists by A. J. Arberry.

‘The setting was inspired by Whistler's Peacock Room in Freer's Detroit house. No one sat for this picture. The face is largely made up with a little help from Lotto's Portrait of a Young Man at Vienna.’

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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