Mirror for the Century? Kitaj's Cecil Court

Richard Morphet ponders the relationship between individual biography and the historical tragedies of the 20th century as mediated via a leading Jewish artist.

The achievements of history painting, as a genre in which significant events are represented with apparent verisimilitude, are rich and varied. Across the centuries they include such contrasting works as Velasquez's 'The Surrender of Breda', David's 'Death of Marat' and Richard. Eurich's vistas of episodes in the Second World War in Normandy, apocalyptic in sweep yet filled with particular details that read as documentary. While this tradition can be expected to continue to flourish, the Tate Gallery's current exhibition 'R.B. Kitaj: a Retrospective' brings into focus another kind of history painting, one which merges the recollection of events of world importance with the expression of an intense subjectivity. In Kitaj's pictures, images from quite disparate sources are brought together in compositions owing as much to the imagination as to a documentary imperative. But the exhibition reminds us that it is often through works that are out and. out inventions that the lasting relevance of the vital human issues at stake in historic conflicts of belief is kept alive.

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