At the Café Central

Andrew Forge

  • First Diasporist Manifesto by R.B. Kitaj
    Thames and Hudson, 128 pp, £7.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 500 27543 2
  • Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 by John Ashbery, edited by David Bergman
    Carcanet, 417 pp, £25.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 85635 807 X

For as long as he has been exhibiting Kitaj has been publishing commentary on his pictures. With him the two activities interlock, coming closer to the idea of the calligram that Foucault played with in his essay on Magritte than to anything that we usually expect from artists’ statements, almost always touched as they are with bravado in the face of the incompatibility of words and pictures. The calligram ‘sets the most perfect trap ... It guarantees capture, as neither discourse alone nor a pure drawing could do.’ So Kitaj has made as if to trap us in his meanings – except that his continual revisions and re interpretations promise escape. Five years ago he wrote that he had become ‘an interested Jew’. This was in the catalogue that announced a group of pictures he called a Jewish Passion. He wrote of the chimney form that many of them contained as ‘my own very primitive attempt at an equivalent symbol, like the cross’.

His Diasporist Manifesto picks up where the catalogue introduction left off. As we expect from him, there is much here about what he has been reading: Jewish history, Zionism, the literature of the Holocaust. He has discovered new contexts for his self-interpretation, from Midrash to Yale Comp Lit. And as always, what he is saying is suggestive and elusive, as irritating as it is arousing. His descant about a Diasporist art seems at one minute to be describing a universal condition and, at the next, the special pains of his own studio, or life history, or tribe. Historic generalisation or confession? Both, of course, but the boundaries between the two are mobile, folding deeper and deeper into each other. And behind it all are his pictures.

Kitaj makes no bones about his historical responsibility. He could be the most ambitious painter alive. Who else today would be ready even to whisper ambitions like his on behalf of painting, or to expose his work to the test of his own protocols? He has taken a stance that makes some other painters look like the sleep-walking lackeys of the scene; or like provincial hermits. Years before the chatter about Post-Modernism had broken out on a journalistic level, Kitaj was pointing out the absolute need to look at the Modern Movement historically. There has been something a bit melodramatic about it all: ‘Oh tribunal of the night!’ the tape-recorder cries just before the last curtain of Les Séquestrés d’Altona, ‘I Franz von Gerlach ... have taken this century upon my shoulders and have said I will answer for it. This day and forever. What do you say?’ This is Kitaj’s tone.

It’s preposterous – or it would be if it were not clear that he is the first target of his confessions and orders of the day. Like many of the Modernists whom he has shadowed so closely – men whose art reflected a world-view deliberately, not by default – he has accepted that his self-consciousness was inescapable and that the only way to avoid being neutered by it was to assume an Identity. This is the point of all the myths that artists have built around themselves: Courbet’s bull, Degas’s bear, Whistler’s butterfly, Eliot’s bank clerk, Lewis’s enemy – they were all parts that allowed awareness to become deed, giving the stutterer words.

We have seen Kitaj as American, as sea-dog, as exile, as connoisseur of backwaters, as Bundist, as chef d’ école, as Old Man. We catch sight of him at the Café Central in old Vienna, at the Café Flore in old Paris, at the Café Royal in old London and, fleetingly, in belted trench-coat, making a pick-up, or a drop, under a dim street light.

The hearing-aid that certain of his figures wore in the late Seventies identified them as spies, so he told us in his gloss on Autumn in Central Paris, his memorial to Walter Benjamin. But it also suggests an identification with the artist, who had been similarly equipped.

                  I may
be needing a new cover,

signals Cupcake, John Hollander’s secret agent in his marvellous book-length poem Reflections on Espionage:

                                     I worry
Mostly, though, how having been made another
Person might have enabled me to do the
Work better, being another case: Do I
Suit the instance of myself we selected?
What would have been a better one?’

Most of Cupcake’s transmissions are meditations on cover and on cipher, cover and cipher for poet and his work. The spy’s ‘instance’ of himself, hostage to good intelligence, is cover for the artist’s equivocation between the ‘realities’ of his fiction and the authenticities they purport to reflect.

Image, there were funny pings in my headset
During the transmission tonight, echoing
Neither in my head nor in the earphones, but
Somewhere within, it seemed to me, their own sound.

Transmitting the truth is always a problem.
Facts we can encipher, and they then become
Sendable messges: why do not the truths
Climb obediently into disguises,
Learn their lines well and be off? Instead they hang
About and plague us with unvoiced reproaches.

Reproaches ping through Kitaj’s deaf-aid. Roots and their loss have obsessed him. His longing has found many wavelengths and many ciphers, transmitting to the Central Europe of his forebears, to the Amerika of his forebears’ longing as well as to his own America. An equally strong signal has gone the other way, to the self-exiled heroes of Modernism and to the masters of the past. Entering the National Gallery, he once wrote: ‘I feel like Alex Haley arriving in the Gambia.’ Now he is ready to consolidate these messages. Exile and roots, modernity and tradition, the disjunctives of collage and the densities of the Human Clay, these antinomies and others besides, he brings together under the banner of his Jewishness: Diasporist Art.

The personages in his paintings are always representative, mythic, however local their context, however strong their resemblance to people or pictures known. He has cited Daumier’s Ratapoil as an exemplar for the members of his cast, topical, a paw in every pie of the day and enduring with nine times nine lives. Now he is linking this enduringness with a shared tribal history. It is a matter of place as well as time. Cézanne’s Mt Ste Victoire represents ‘the history of a bitter old Provençal genius wrestling with his art angel on his own sacred southern ground. That’s what I want to be, a tribal remembrancer, wrestling with my Diasporic angel.’ But for him place is always elsewhere, behind or ahead, his cafés and brothels mere temporary shelters for make-believe and remembering. The dream may recur but the dreamer is for ever in transit. One was pictured in a large charcoal called The Jew Etc (1976). It was described by John Ashbery in a review at the time: ‘The figure is seated in profile in a railway compartment ... His body is thrust anxiously forward, though his face wears a dreamy expression ... His lips are parted as though he was considering speech, and like several of Kitaj’s figures, he wears a hearing-aid.’ Elsewhere, at another time, another traveller, The Jewish Rider (1985/86), is deep in a book. He looks remarkably like Michael Podro, but it may be a disguise or a trick of the light – one can’t be sure. Down the corridor we can see the conductor – dressed like a bell-hop in an old comedy – brandishing a riding-crop. Out of the carriage window, crucifix and death camp chimney defile a distant hillside. Somehow the cushions of the seat have become a horse. The Jewish reader, absorbed, sprawling, elides with Rembrandt’s relaxed huntsman.

Both these pictures are reproduced in the book, The Jew Etc in two versions. There are pictures facing each page of text, mostly details taken from Kitaj’s drawings, interspersed with a sprinkling of personal photographs. Everything is on stiff matte paper, the reproductions coarsely screened and bled out to the edges, giving the book the feel of a little magazine circa 1950. Kitaj’s skill in pastiche of the not-too-distant past is uncanny. He has an extraordinary eye for images of all kinds and for what one might think of as their degree of stickiness, the ways in which past meanings and the quality of remembrance adhere to them. This touches on what is for me the strangest attribute of his painting. It seems as if the power of evocation contained in his images works like a virus, infecting the onlooker with the power of remembrance. Some people concerned with pictures have the gift of total visual recall. Matisse is said to have had it. So is Berenson. Howard Hodgkin has it. My own visual memory is uncertain and self-deluding, except when it comes to Kitaj. His pictures come to my mind’s eye exactly, or so I believe, and they come with all the power of suppressed material, but on command. I wish I knew what to make of this. The memorability of verse has been taken as a measure of quality, but to extend this criterion to painting would knock out most of the pictures I admire.

For Kitaj, the distinction between art and life is not between art and nature but between one kind of representation and another. His pictures are all about picturing. The contemporary he most resembles here is Warhol. To both ‘life’ consists of a fabric of representations, images, narratives, disguises – although of course Kitaj’s sense of the breadth of that fabric, his view of history, is as far from Warhol’s 15 minutes as his hot, serious anxiety is from Warhol’s icy carelessness. Perhaps the alternative painter’s intuition, that somewhere beneath the surface of life there lies the real thing, wordless carnal substance, demands a different attitude to time and place, some kind of rootedness. Cézanne’s mountain was his sensation as well as being named Mt Ste Victoire; a woman’s head offered another cluster of sensations, no less particular than her name, Mme Cézanne, though less useful.

Kitaj’s interested Jewishness coincided with his return to drawing from the model. His work since then has a thickness that it didn’t have before, but it is impossible to imagine him breaking the circle of painting and commentary, surrendering to sensation. He has a richer perception of what rootedness might mean now, giving an even deeper poignancy to his desire: but between there stretches a succession of images, mobile, endless, disembodied, like the telegraph poles that flash past the window of a speeding express.

It is the good fortune of painters working in America that they can expect poets to be interested in what they are doing. Ashbery, Hollander, Mark Strand, to name only some obvious names, are as passionate and as thoughtful about painting as the poets were in the heyday of Paris. More often than not, their writing is like a healthful antidote to the onanistic garbage that is pumped out by the professionals in the art magazines. Ashbery’s articles have been selected from thirty years of reviewing. In an article about Hélion he mentions the painter’s friendship with Francis Ponge and what painter and poet had in common: ‘Both have invented a new kind of description, poetic without being rhapsodic, which treats the outside of things as though it were their soul.’ It sounds like the programme for his own intelligent and closely-observed descriptions. One feature of this collection that gives it a special interest is his willingness to look at all sorts without the slightest regard for fashion. Edwin Dickinson, Leland Bell, Jane Freilicher, Joseph Shannon, for example, are not big export items, but they are important.