T. S. Eliot in the Art of R. B. Kitaj: Anatomy of an Influence

Dídac Llorens-Cubedo


R. B. Kitaj’s keen interest in literature, which he connected with his Jewish heritage and its reverence for the written word, shows through as an essential characteristic of his art. As a young artist, Kitaj’s cultural referents included Ezra Pound and, especially, T. S. Eliot. The external and imaginative structure of The Waste Land (1922) inspired the composition of Kitaj’s Tarot Variations (1958), while Eliot’s “Notes” to the poem were a model for Kitaj’s “prefaces,” short texts supplementing many of his paintings. If Not, Not (1975-1976) memorialises the Shoah, also drawing on The Waste Land—the definitive text as well as its drafts and critical reception. Like Eliot’s poetry, Kitaj’s art is highly allusive, in a way that conforms to Eliot’s views on tradition and creativity. This is one of the reasons to stress the continuities with modernism in Kitaj’s figurative art, which developed in the predominantly non-figurative context of postmodernism. In later years, Kitaj distanced himself from Eliot—prominently in The Killer-Critic (1997)—rejecting the poet’s early emphasis on impersonality and the anti-Semitism of his verse. Despite these differences, Eliot’s influence on Kitaj was intense, long-lasting and productive.

Keywords: R. B. Kitaj; T. S. Eliot; modernism; influence; tradition

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