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Did art critics kill RB Kitaj?

January 10, 2010

Despite the intelligence and inventiveness of Kitaj’s art, the critics were cruel. Did bad reviews drive him to suicide?

RB Kitaj, artist

Press-ganged … artist RB Kitaj. Photograph: Lee Friedlander

In the expansive entrance hall of the British Library in London hangs a tapestry based on RB Kitaj’s painting If Not, Not (1975–1976). It is vast. It is also quite beautiful. Fierce colours fizz as scholars and students walk by. But its content is far from reassuring. Palm trees are silhouetted in blue against a lurid orange, yellow and violet sky; they suggest not a tropical paradise but the Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now. You can almost hear the helicopters and the opening guitar notes of The End by The Doors. Above the palm trees looms something worse: the deadly architecture of Auschwitz.

In the woven picture, pastoral glimpses of bathers and famous 20th-century intellectuals are folded into a broken and chaotic landscape. It’s like a hellish remake of Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre. Images of pleasure, of modernism as escape, jar against visions of modernity as nightmare. A powerful work of art, this decoration is derived meticulously from Kitaj’s painting. It also serves as a monument to the artist, who killed himself in 2007 after his later years were blighted by bad reviews in the British press.

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Did art critics kill RB Kitaj?

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