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1996 The Royal Academy as a "Vehicle for Revenge"

“The Royal Academy has been thrown into consternation,” wrote David Lister in The Independent, “by a painting submitted by the distinguished Royal Academician R.B. Kitaj for next week’s Summer Exhibition.”1 Kitaj’s Sandra One / The Critic Kills, was a four-panelled salvo of paint, word, and image fired squarely at the critics he believed were responsible for the death of his wife almost two years prior (Fig. 1). According to Lister, with just four days to go until the opening of the Exhibition, Kitaj’s latest work had been the cause of “considerable hand-wringing” over its inclusion, and risked either being “seen by hundreds of thousands of people” or being “a slap in the face for one of the Royal Academy’s most famous members” if rejected.2 But Sir Philip Dowson, the then President of the Academy, did not seem daunted, maintaining that: “it shall be hung in Gallery I. It is a strong personal statement and there is no question of not hanging it.”3 “[H]and-wringing” over, Kitaj could now exact his own “strange and bitter revenge” on the critics from the walls of the Academy.4

Explore the 1996 catalogue

In Lister’s article, Kitaj was justly identified as one of the Academy’s most famous members. An originator of the “School of London”—which included artists like Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Leon Kossoff—in 1991, Kitaj became only the third American to be elected a Royal Academician (RA).5 Still, Lister set the scene for the uninitiated: in the previous year, only two weeks after his major retrospective at the Tate in 1994–1995, Kitaj’s wife, Sandra Fisher, suffered a brain aneurysm and died. However, the suggestion that the intensely vitriolic criticism directed at Kitaj following the Tate show had anything to do with Fisher’s death seemed to have caused more consternation in the column-inches of The Independent than it did at the Academy.

Hanging as promised in Gallery I, Sandra One read like a magazine from left to right; the first in a series of works that would for Kitaj “become a vehicle for revenge”.6 We can see from reproductions that it began with a title page of sorts: a photograph of Fisher, face on and smiling, is positioned between hesitant zine-style text spelling out “SANDRA, ONE” above and “Spring 1996”, below. In the second panel, on a yellow background, Kitaj provides a gloss to his strange image: “Instruction: This painting is a magazine. It is the first issue of an irregular art magazine called Sandra.” Then a red panel quoting Adolf Hitler:

Works of art that are not capable of being understood in themselves, but require some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence …

Finally, a distressed scrawl—flanked by a field of rapidly applied dabs of paint and thin dribbles of crimson—declares, “THE CRITIC KILLS” and is signed “by Ron and Sandra”.7 

Kitaj would continue the series in the following year, this time with an actual magazine. Sandra Two was published by Marlborough Fine Art in October 1996 to coincide with an exhibition of his work organised in Paris. This second issue comprised a catalogue for the exhibition and an interview with Kitaj—who very rarely gave them to the press—where he revealed that “Sandra and I often spoke of doing a ‘little mag’ in the Modernist traditions of dissent, heresy and what is called avant-garde.”8 By its very nature the series established Kitaj’s “personal” work as a counterblast to those he called the “Eliotic” types in Britain—who he accused of trying “to deny personality in art”.9

In 1997, Kitaj once again dominated the press coverage in the build-up to the Summer Exhibition. “Kitaj causes £1 million stir”, announced The Independent.10 On the previous day, they had published a piece describing Kitaj’s plan to leave London for Los Angeles. The article was followed by an interview with Kitaj, where the artist details his contribution to the upcoming Summer Exhibition; “The President gave me a wall for my magazine—the third issue, ‘Sandra Three’,” he is quoted as saying.11 In the Exhibition, the wall Kitaj refers to was dissected by a band of colour—wooden panels painted deep red at one end and yellow at the other—on which he hung a succession of framed photographs, paintings, collages, and texts (Fig. 2).

The installation was centred on two substantial paintings, The Killer-Critic assassinated by his Widower, Even (1997)—with its Duchampian title—and The Violinist with the Spirit of his Mother (1997), around which Kitaj positioned various intertextual references. In The Killer-Critic, Kitaj draws on Manet’s Execution of Maximillian (1868) and improves on T.S. Eliot’s aphorism—that “art is the escape from personality”—by replacing “from” with “to” and signing his own name instead. Surrounding it, echoes of Sandra One emerge—as visitors to both Summer Exhibitions would have noticed—while other ingredients have been foraged and framed from the magazine, Sandra Two. In Sandra Three, Kitaj also draws parallels between the hounding he received in the British press and the criticism that dogged Édouard Manet. His installation incorporates a lithograph of Manet’s Execution of Maximillian, Baudelaire’s description of Manet—“Monsieur: it seems you have the honour of inspiring hatred”—and Manet’s own admission that the “attack against me broke in me the mainspring in my life”.12

By this point, Kitaj was sixty-four years old and under no illusion about his relative maturity in the contemporary art world. The Summer Exhibition gave him the chance to play with the notion of a “geriatric avant-garde”.13 When the President, Phillip Dowson asked him to “do a sparse hang” of the gallery in which Sandra Three would be displayed, Kitaj chose “the first old timers I could think of”.14 He picked a provocative portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucien Freud to hang with work by Auerbach, Kossoff, and Richard Hamilton—all artists who usually shunned the Summer Exhibition. Yet as Andrew Lambirth has pointed out, comparatively, Kitaj had always felt comfortable with the Academy, and here “used it as a very effective platform”.15

With Sandra Three, the critics changed tack once more. While the previous year’s reviews had been generally tolerant, in 1997—perhaps in response to being pissed-on in paint on the walls of Burlington House—some took a more defensive tone. Brian Sewell labelled Kitaj “hysterical” while Waldemar Januszczak suggested that Kitaj should move to Italy, where he could pay a critic to write “nice things”.16 In any event, Kitaj moved to America where perhaps Alan Riding, writing in The New York Times, came closest to the mark when he observed: “the war has become the event”.17

  1. David Lister, “Painter Takes his Revenge on ‘Thug’ Critics”, The Independent, 1 June 1996, 6.↩︎

  2. Lister, The Independent, 1 June 1996.↩︎

  3. Lister, The Independent, 1 June 1996.↩︎

  4. Lister, The Independent, 1 June 1996.↩︎

  5. Cilly Kugelmann, “‘I Accuse!’ Kitaj’s ‘Tate-War’ and an Interview with Richard Morphet”, in Jüdisches Museum Berlin (ed.), Obsessions: R.B. Kitaj 1932–2007 (Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2012), 195.↩︎

  6. Lucinda Brendon, “To Hell with the Lot of Them”, The Sunday Telegraph, 25 May 1997.↩︎

  7. Anne Vira Figenschou, “Dialogue of Revenge”, unpublished PhD thesis, 30. ForArt: (accessed 2 October 2017).↩︎

  8. Figenschou, 35.↩︎

  9. Figenschou, 35.↩︎

  10. The Independent, 28 May 1997, 9.↩︎

  11. Andrew Lambirth, “Kitaj and the Firing Squad”, The Independent Tabloid, 27 May 1997, 2.↩︎

  12. Figenschou, 44.↩︎

  13. Lambirth, The Independent Tabloid, 27 May 1997: 3.↩︎

  14. Lambirth, The Independent Tabloid, 27 May 1997, 3.↩︎

  15. Andrew Lambirth, Kitaj (London: PWP Contemporary Art, 2004), 66.↩︎

  16. Dalya Alberge, “Painter Studies Art of Revenge”, The Times, 28 May 1997, 3.↩︎

  17. Alan Riding, “An Artist who Seeks Revenge Through his Art”, The New York Times, 7 June 1997.↩︎

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Explore the 1996 catalogue