R.B. Kitaj

The paintings of R.B. Kitaj will always been twinned in my mind with the poetry of Lee Harwood, for the rather basic reason that the cover of the Paladin edition of Harwood’s Crossing the Frozen River included a detail from Kitaj’s ‘A Study For The World’s Body’. I brought that Lee Harwood book with me to London when moving here during the late nineties, but it was Kitaj rather than Harwood who seemed to pursue me during those odd years, when I was trying to find a place for myself in my adopted city.

Well, ‘pursue’ is overstating things, but I was of the age and inclination to enjoy synchronicity whenever I encountered it. Whether I was coming across Kitaj’s works by accident (If Not, Not hanging in the British Library, a postcard of Cecil Court WC2 falling from a copy of The Counterfeiters in a bookshop on Cecil Court), or discovering that he’d drawn portraits of various literary figures I’d read, admired, and even met, I felt I was following him across the city, picking up clues he’d left behind.

Going back to Lee Harwood, there’s clearly more to the relationship between the two than a book designer’s conceit. Harwood remains one of British poetry’s the most astonishingly visual poets, with a sense of image more in keeping with Eastern verse than anything from the British or American traditions. Like Kitaj, Harwood made use of the techniques of collage. Like Kitaj, there’s a sense of cultural history being casually invoked without a sense of obligation, or anxiety. Both of them share a fascination with cinema (the source image for ‘A Study For The World’s Body’ is based on a scene from Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal, for example). There’s also the link to John Ashbery, who acclaimed them both.

My favourite of Kitaj’s paintings is one called The Oak Tree, dating from 1991, showing a bright blue tree in a city street. It’s a minor painting, perhaps, but it represented a key touchstone for me in how to represent the landscapes of a city, with strangeness and surprise. One of the things that has kept me writing over the years, is a restless impulse to find the country in the city, and that’s a visual impulse, as much as a written one.

It’s probably a bad joke to mention my own painting at this point. I’m a Sunday painter at the most, and I doubt if Kitaj would have approved either of my technique, or my subject matter. (He once once advised his students to avoid abstract expressionism with the challenge, ‘Do you want to spend your career painting stripes?’) If I can’t be under an illusions about the quality of my painting, neither can I really ignore the importance and rewards painting has had for me, particularly over recent years. In part, that’s because by discovering paint, I’ve also freed myself up to rediscover poetry, and it’s established my belief that poetry is as close to painting as the written word can get. Dependent on the principle of the line, but also non-linear, impressionistic and accumulative, dealing in tangibility, image and colour, the two disciplines reach out to one another across their respective blank sheets. It’s probably what I’ve taken from Kitaj most of all: he’s the painter who taught me how to write.

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