InSight No. XLIX
Despite his melancholic temperament, R.B. Kitaj made dazzling paintings which promised ‘not only to do Cézanne and Degas over again after Surrealism, but after Auschwitz, after the Gulag.’
Today, we categorise the many forms of inward distress under a neat, catch-all phrase: ‘mental illness’. In the ancient world, however, a person’s mood was accounted for not by a universal sliding scale between wellness and illness, but rather by an individual’s balance of the four humours. An excess or deficiency of choler, melancholy, phlegm or blood (sanguinity) could have harmful effects. Following this doctrine, a pseudo-Aristotelian author described a melancholy man thus:
He is brown in complexion, unquiet, his veins hidden, eateth little, and digesteth less, dreameth of dark and confused things, is sad, fearful, exceeding covetous, and incontinent.
However, though many of Kitaj’s paintings contain a degree of coded autobiography, his wide-ranging references traversed politics, Jewish identity, art history, poetry and iconographical scholarship. His approach to making pictures was characterised by a fleet-footed post modernism, and it would be a mistake to regard a work like Fed Up, Again simply as an expression of the artist’s private emotion.
One of Kitaj’s fascinations was the painting of late nineteenth-century France. He once suggested that his focus as an artist was ‘not only to do Cézanne and Degas over again after Surrealism, but after Auschwitz, after the Gulag.’ Fed Up, Again shows Kitaj acting on his statement. The smoothly brushed impasto of the vermilion trousers relates closely to the painterly, wet-in-wet surface of Degas’s own version of Melancholy. The sitter’s state of troubled repose and the stark contrast of pink and green in Fed Up, Again delivers the undertow of surrealism which Kitaj promised in his declaration.