In his blog Guardian critic Jonathan Jones suggests that bad reviews killed RB Kitaj. “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)….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 (image at left). 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.
“Kitaj accused newspaper critics of driving his wife to her death, then took his own life. One of his last exhibitions was called ‘Draw Draw Is Better Than Jaw Jaw.’ The bad reception in London of his 1994 Tate retrospective caused him to move abroad (he was an American who had worked, up to then, in London). It seems he never got over it.
“Looking at ‘If Not, Not’ (the original painting is owned by the National Galleries of Scotland), I can’t help but be angry at those critics. Why destroy an artist so cruelly? What was gained? Kitaj stood for a sense of history, a belief in drawing and an intelligent modernism. Are those such terrible qualities in an artist? ‘If Not, Not’ will be remembered when Kitaj’s bad reviews, and their authors, are long forgotten. Stories like this make me wonder what my profession is actually for.”
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