press release

Together with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj (Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 1932) is considered a key figure of the London School. Although his interest in figuration, often combined with narrative or autobiographical components, has occasionally led critics to link his paintings with Pop Art, his images are not drawn from popular culture. Kitaj takes his inspiration from philosophy, history, film, literature, politics and his own experiences and thoughts.

Produced by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and curated by Marco Livingstone, KITAJ: PORTRAIT OF A HISPANIST takes an in-depth look at the painter’s longstanding relationship with Spain. Since 1953, Kitaj has spent a great deal of time in Catalonia. These visits awakened his enduring interest in Spanish history and culture.

Portrait of a Hispanist was sparked by the acquisition in 2002 by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum of The Hispanist (Nissa Torrents) (1977-78), a signature work in Kitaj’s production. The Hispanist is a portrait of the artist’s friend Nissa Torrents (Barcelona, 1937-London, 1992), a leading hispanist of her day and lecturer at the University of London. With a catalogue that the artist himself has helped put together, the exhibition includes some twenty works, mostly from the 1960s and 70s.

Accompanying The Hispanist will be several portraits of intellectuals and friends from the same series, like Smyrna Greek, Nikos (1976-77) now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, The Arabist (1975-76), from the Boymans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam and The Orientalist (1976-77), loaned for the occasion by the Tate Gallery, London. Also included in the exhibition are works from the sixties, seventies and eighties that reflect Kitaj’s interest in Spanish culture and history, such as Kennst du Das Land? (1962) and Where the Railroad Leaves the Sea (1964), both from the Queen Sofía National Museum & Art Centre in Madrid.

Apart from the artist’s own contribution, the catalogue also includes essays by Marco Livingstone, art historian and critic and member of the Museum’s Art Advisory Commission, and Javier San Martín, lecturer at the University of the Basque Country.

Ronald Brooks Kitaj was born in 1932 in Ohio into a Jewish American family. In 1950 he began his studies at the Cooper Union Institution in New York, at a time when he was particularly interested in the ideas behind Surrealism. He alternated his studies with periods spent working in the merchant marine.

Kitaj came to Europe for the first time in 1951 and discovered Spain in 1953. He spent the winter of that year painting in Sant Feliú de Guixols, on the Catalonian Costa Brava coast, an area he would return to regularly until the late seventies. In 1957 he settled in England, where he lived for many years, before returning to the United States, which is once again his home.

During the 1970s, Kitaj concentrated on the representation of the human figure and on drawing techniques. His portraits of intellectuals and friends date from that time. The Hispanist (Nissa Torrents) is directly related to his regular visits to the Catalonian coast and to his ever-deepening knowledge of Spanish culture and history. Painted between 1977 and 1978, the portrait is set in an interior enlivened by a mobile with two cats and a range of objects on a table. Attributed to Picasso, the mobile served as a signature for the legendary Barcelona coffeehouse Els quatre gats, a favourite haunt of artists and intellectuals. In the upper right hand part of the painting, the interior opens on to the Costa Brava, flooding the composition with Mediterranean light.

A Mediterranean landscape also appears on the right hand side of 1976’s Catalan Christ (Pretending to be Dead), which is the same size as the other portraits in the series, only turned horizontal. Really a memento mori, the work also includes a quote (on an apple on a book placed on the coffin lid) from the portrait of Fray Gonzalo de Illescas, painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1639.

Conceived after Kitaj visited Greece, Smyrna Greek, Nikos (1976-77) is a portrait of the artist’s friend, Greek poet and publisher Nikos Stangos, as he enters a brothel. The inspiration for the figure is taken from the Greek poet Cavafy (Alexandria, 1863-1933), who described his own wanderings around the portside brothels in his hometown. The bearded man at the top of the stair is Kitaj himself, who in this work uses an alter-ago as a means of referring to both poets and to himself.

Elongated either vertically or horizontally, the three portraits feature clear, synthetic drawing that structures the composition into large planes dominated by an original sense of colour. These features are also to be found in The Orientalist (1976-77) and The Arabist (1975-76), two paintings that could be seen as presenting a reflection on identity and the alienation of contemporary man from his culture.

The artist’s earlier production from the sixties provides even clearer evidence of his interest in Spanish history and culture and, in particular, his taste for political thought. Fruit of this interest is the 1969 portrait of Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, and Junta, from 1962, a collage with several panels with explicit references to people and episodes from the history of Spanish anarchists. The right hand panel takes its inspiration from the now legendary figure of Buenaventura Durruti. To his left is a bunch of flowers that hides a bomb, a reference to the anarchist attack on the wedding cortege of King Alfonso XIII and his bride, Victoria Eugenia.

Kennst du Das Land? (1962), a title taken from a poem by Goethe, was almost certainly inspired by a photograph from the Spanish Civil War showing a battlefield, probably Teruel in the winter of 1937-38, under snow. Once again we find a reference to art history in the upper part of the painting, in the shape of a transcription of a drawing by Goya. Such references are frequent in his paintings. Although some are subtle, others are quite clear, as for example in the 1979 lithograph Barceloneta, a bare, direct version of one of the best-known works of Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres.

According to the artist, Where the Railroad Leaves the Sea, from 1964, was inspired “by a small railway station, now disappeared, and its enduring melancholy.” A couple, framed by the architecture of the station, is shown kissing, in what is possibly a leave-taking, evoking similar scenes to be found in many films of the first half of the century.

At the end of the seventies, Kitaj executed the charcoal drawing Communist and socialist (second version), a portrait of his great Catalonian friend José Vicente, with whom he shared in Sant Feliú a passion for literature, art, history and politics, a commitment to the times and our most recent past. Pressetext

Ronald B. Kitaj - Portait of a Hispanist