“My paintings have a secret,” the post-war American painter R.B. Kitaj is reported to have said. “I don’t know what it is. It is for you to find out.”

The passion, color and tortured splendor of that secret went on display last week in London, part of the first comprehensive retrospective since the artist’s 2007 death. Encompassing more than 130 paintings, prints and drawings, the works recently transferred from Berlin’s Jewish Museum to the UK, where they will be displayed concurrently until June 16 at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and at London’s Jewish Museum.

Comprised of pieces loaned from private collections, museums and Kitaj’s Los Angeles estate and archive, “Obsessions” explores the life, legacy and Jewish themes of the Ohio-born artist.

Born Ronald Brooks in 1932, he took his surname from his stepfather, a refugee from Vienna. Although he never met his biological father, the show’s curator, Dr. Eckhart Gillen, says that the elder man was carrying an image of one of Kitaj’s paintings in his wallet when he died.

Raised as an atheist by the daughter of a Russian political activist, Kitaj described his secular upbringing as focused on being “a freethinker with no Jewish education.”

“As a young man, I was not sure what a Jew was,” he said.

Nevertheless, Kitaj developed several Jewish obsessions, the inspiration behind the exhibition. He called his treatment of the “Jewish Question” — an all-consuming examination of Jewish identity — “my neurosis, my war, my pleasure-principle.”

Kitaj lived in London for more than three decades, but left in anger after critics trashed a 1994 show at the Tate. (Photo credit: Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Frankel Gallery, San Francisco)

Kitaj lived in London for more than three decades, but left in anger after critics trashed a 1994 show at the Tate. (Photo credit: Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Frankel Gallery, San Francisco)

An avid collector of books, pamphlets and journals, Kitaj took ideas from his extensive personal library, and titles and quotations often found their way onto the canvas. “The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin),” completed in 1973, took its name from a book title, and simultaneously paid tribute to one of Kitaj’s intellectual inspirations. Other role models included Kafka and Freud, figures for whom displacement and loss were central.

Kitaj felt a strong connection to Benjamin because of his positioning as a diasporist — a Jew caught between cultures and nations, never fully belonging anywhere. Like the German-born philosopher, Kitaj committed suicide, suffocating himself with a plastic bag eight days before his 75th birthday. Kitaj’s third obsession was his desire for and reverence of women.

Although Kitaj was a boy during the Holocaust, the genocide influenced him profoundly, convincing him his Jewish identity was inescapable. He later wrote, “One third of our people were murdered while I was playing baseball, going to the movies and high school and dreaming of being an artist . . .The classic assimilationist pose had been destroyed by the Holocaust. I never clearly received that message until I began my own self-education in Jewish history.”

A key development was reading Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. A decade later, in the early ’70s, Kitaj began to examine what it meant to be a “public Jew” — a term he used to refer to his role as a Jewish artist.

In 1989, he published “First Diasporist Manifesto,” in which he discussed the Jewish dimensions of his art and thought. The Diaspora, in his view, formed the basis of the Jewish experience, establishing Jews as perpetual outsiders.

Kitaj paintings such as "The Wedding" make it difficult for viewers to fix their gaze on any single element or area of the image. (Courtesy of the Tate, London, 2012)

Kitaj paintings such as “The Wedding” make it difficult for viewers to fix their gaze on any single element or area of the image. (Courtesy of the Tate, London, 2012)

A painter-drawer, Kitaj sketched his images before painting. A close inspection of some pieces reveals layers of paint that have been removed by cloth, with the raw canvas still visible. Many require the viewer’s eye to roam; it is difficult to focus on a single part of the image. Kitaj’s works tend to be multilayered both in form and meaning — a result of his desire, Gillen says, that they provoke conversation.

The artist had a tendency to supplement his work with written commentaries, which he viewed as part of the Midrashic tradition. However, the practice led to a flood of negative reviews of his 1994 retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London — many critics deemed his textual explanations excessive, arguing that they diminished the power of the images. He blamed the incident — which he called “the Tate War” — for the sudden death of his second wife, Sandra Fisher, and abruptly left London, where he had lived for more than 30 years, to return to the US. He never returned, and viewed the experience as further confirmation that he didn’t belong.

Pallant House Gallery, whose exhibition has been subtitled “Analyst for Our Time,” has included “The Killer-Critic Assassinated By His Widower, Even” (1997), Kitaj’s vast, angry collage responding to the episode. Red and orange dominate, and a gunman, identified as Kitaj by the Hebrew letter kuf, is positioned next to Manet, a painter who suffered criticism during his lifetime. They shoot at the London critics, shaped as a giant monster, and the words “Hate Hate” appear, seemingly cut out of a journal or newspaper. Book covers line the base of the image, with titles such as James Parkes‘ “An Enemy of the People: Antisemitism.” The message is clear.

The exhibition’s two UK homes look at different facets of Kitaj’s work. Pallant House Gallery is presenting an overview, with more than 50 paintings, sketches and prints, including portraits of personal friends, such as artist David Hockney, and other figures Kitaj admired.

“If Not, Not” makes an eclectic assortment of references, including to Auschwitz, Degas and T.S. Eliot. (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

“If Not, Not” makes an eclectic assortment of references, including to Auschwitz, Degas and T.S. Eliot. (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

At the Jewish Museum London, “Obsessions: The Art of Identity” will focus on how Kitaj explored and expressed his Jewishness. Exhibiting just over 20 pieces, the show includes “Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees),” painted between 1983 and 1984, a large, vibrant painting that incorporates many images within the frame. The painting‘s namesake location, a London alley that was home to refugee booksellers who had fled the Nazis, was a place Kitaj regularly visited. The street is portrayed as a Yiddish theater stage with the “characters” acting in isolation, and the artist has placed himself reclining on a Le Corbusier chair in the foreground.

Certain symbols recur, such as chimneys suggestive of the Holocaust. In “The Jewish Rider” (1984-‘85), Kitaj’s muse is the art historian Michael Podro, a friend. The piece takes inspiration from Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider,” showing Podro slouched on a train while passing a desolate landscape; a chimney and a cross are visible through the window. Tucked to the right side of the painting, the conductor is menacing, reminiscent of Nazi aggression. In Kitaj’s papers, he expands the title to make the picture’s meaning unambiguous: “Poland–Auschwitz (Poland)–J. Rider.”

Tragic death overshadowed Kitaj’s life, experiences he reflected in his work. His first wife and biological father committed suicide; Fisher’s unexpected death was a trauma he never overcame. But, says Gillen, Kitaj also found fascination in living. He was always searching, never settled and never content, particularly in his own identity. There were times when he stopped, then started anew.

It was through this restlessness that Kitaj found out what painting would mean to him.