“What Do You Expect From a Pig But a Grunt”: RB Kitaj’s “Tate War” Letters Displayed For the First Time

“What Do You Expect From a Pig But a Grunt”: RB Kitaj’s “Tate War” Letters Displayed For the First Time
RB Kitaj
(Photograph by Lee Friedlander, London, 1993 © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Frankel Gallery, San Francisco)

Pallant House in Chichester and the Jewish Museum London have joined forces to present the first British retrospective of RB Kitaj’s work since the American artist’s suicide in 2007. The double-bill show, which gathers more than 100 paintings and drawings, marks Kitaj’s return to his adopted British home. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1959, and until the mid-1990s was enjoying a comfortable position in the London art world, respected by his peers and friends David Hockney, Lucian Freud, and Frank Auerbach, among others.

But a major Tate retrospective in 1994, meant to be the pinnacle of Kitaj’s career, became his breaking point, eventually leading to the artist’s departure from the UK in 1997. It had started well enough. “The opening itself was a really euphoric occasion, large numbers of people from the art world, and a real kind of confirmation of Kitaj's dedication over the years,” retrospective curator Richard Morphet told The Observer’s Tim Adams recently. It didn’t last. The morning after, art critics poured what the curator described as “a cascade of vitriol” on the exhibition.

Andrew Graham-Dixon and Brian Sewell were particularly virulent in their attacks, the latter describing Kitaj as “a vain painter puffed with amour propre, unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art.” The artist was deeply affected by these reactions — and his depression took a tragic turn when his wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, died two weeks after the opening from brain aneurysm. In Kitaj’s perturbed mind, the critics had killed her. “They aimed at me and they got Sandra instead,” he said at the time, and dubbed the whole episode the “Tate War.”

Several of the artist’s friends were profoundly upset by the show’s critical reception. Among them was the architect Colin St John "Sandy" Wilson, who attempted to coordinate an official response of support by starting a round-robin letter. Hockney, Peter Blake, and Leon Kossoff were among those signed it. So was Auerbach. Freud declined in a memorable note to Wilson, which is to be exhibited for the first time ever at Pallant House, alongside Wilson’s response, the letters, and correspondence from Kitaj to Wilson and his wife MJ spanning twenty five years.

Freud’s delectable missive is reproduced here in full.

Dear Sandy,

Though it’s often a good idea to write to someone in order to object, agree, question, or ridicule anything they may have said or done (or even to challenge them to a duel or ask them to lunch), I feel it’s pointless to gang up on a third rate critic when you don’t consider him seriously. As they so wisely say in Ireland: What do you expect from a pig but a grunt. Regards. Lucian.

“Many thanks for your splendid note which I have passed on to a delighted RBK,” answered Wilson. “He’s still licking his wounds — no one can stop us all from doing that, but at least he’s getting a good laugh out of it as well.” Kitaj went on to paint a series of pictures inspired by his late wife, and the “Tate War,” including the “Killer Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even,” presented at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1997. The same year, he relocated to Los Angeles with his young son Max.

The Art of Identity, until June 16, 2013, Jewish Museum London

Analyst for Our Time (February 23 – June 16, 2013), Pallant House Gallery, Chichester