R.B. Kitaj 1932 - 2007


Private Collection, Tokyo


London, National Gallery, Encounters: New Art from Old, 14 June –17 September 2000
London, Elastic Residence, Risk Management, 13 October –27 November 2011
This painting will be included in the forthcoming Kitaj retrospective at the Jewish Museum, Berlin, 21 September 2012– 27 January 2013



Richard Morphet, Encounters: New Art from Old, National Gallery, London, 2000, pp 204–13, illus colour p204
Marco Livingstone, Kitaj, Phaidon, London, 2010, p57 and p254, cat no.227, illus colour




This painting was Kitaj's contribution to the exhibition Encounters: New Art from Old at the National Gallery, London in 2000. It is described by art historian Marco Livingstone as 'a caustic rumination on the value accorded to art by the market and a continuation of his single-figure inventions on canvases in an elongated vertical format'.

The painting shows Kitaj's 'billionaire' sitting on the iconic yellow chair from Van Gogh's Chair, 1888, a painting from the National Gallery's own collection. Van Gogh's painting is itself a companion work to another oil of Gauguin's armchair, seen at night, which is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In these two paintings the empty chairs act as stand-ins for the absent artists, representing their contrasting temperaments and interests, see attached images. Van Gogh's impoverished existence is well documented in his own letters and yet his paintings latterly achieved incredible prices at auction. Kitaj sees the irony in Van Gogh's paintings of rural poverty now only being attainable by the super-rich. Other Kitaj paintings from the late 1990s employ chairs as symbols. Van Gogh's chair is clearly referenced in another long, thin canvas Circumcision Chair, 1998. In Bed and Sofa (after Abram Room), 1998, Kitaj refers to an avant-garde Russian film in which the sofa is a symbol of poverty 'We have no room, but we have a sofa'.

Kitaj, talks specifically about this painting in Marco Livingstone's 2010 book (p254). In the final section of the book entitled 'Prefaces' Kitaj gives detailed explanations for some of his paintings. These statements are invaluable, particularly given that his work so often contains complex art historical, political and personal references, which are not always made available to his audience:

'The Billionaire in Vincent's Chair is mainly what it appears to be - A picture of a very rich man, mighty proud of himself, very pleased with himself, because he owns Vincent's Chair. I suppose he bought it at auction for a lot of money. I had just read a fascinating book tracing the history of Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet from its purchase, just after Vincent's suicide, by a young Jewish-Danish woman for $ 50, to the $ 80 million plus paid for it by a Japanese billionaire recently. I can never look at a Van Gogh painting in a museum without a passing thought about the neglected picture stacked against a humble wall in a little room - unwanted, despised, and worthless. I make no moral judgment about the billionaire, only a thought about the absurd trajectory from despair and suicide to vast celebrity in 100 years…
Some years ago, envious of novelists who are able to invent characters and then re-introduce them in subsequent books, I invented a man called Joe Singer and gave him a role in some pictures over the years. I believe my Billionaire is Joe in one of his moments in life and art. One more thing I would like to say is that my favourite pictures in the National Gallery are by Cezanne and Van Gogh. I feel very close to them because I am closer to them in history than I am the older Masters in the National Gallery.'

As could be expected of Kitaj, the figure of Joe Singer is highly complex and he is used to represent different ideas in different paintings. The real Joe Singer was a lover of Kitaj's mother, prior to her second marriage to Dr Walter Kitaj, whom Kitaj identified as his 'real father'. As such, Joe Singer represents an alternative father figure and another possible identity for Kitaj as 'R.B. Singer' and in the paintings a number of different, and sometimes contradictory roles are projected onto him.