Private Collection, Europe
London, Tate Gallery, R.B. Kitaj, A Retrospective, 16 June-4 September 1994, cat no.79, illus colour p141, touring to:
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 23 October-8 January 1995
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15 February-14 May 1995
Marco Livingstone, Kitaj, Phaidon, London, 1985, cat no.453, not illus
Alistair Hicks, New British Art in the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, London, 1989, cat no.43, illus colour p58
DescriptionPainted in 1987, The Sniper is a monumental, theatrical picture that presents a strange fragment of a modern myth, a passer-by being shot from above, the sniper in turn being killed by a stealthy figure climbing strange and impossible stairs. The Sniper presents the viewer with a disturbing and absorbing mixture of comedy and violence. The scene is one of trauma and of fable-like impossibility and the street itself recalls the paintings of Kitaj's friend Richard Diebenkorn. Meanwhile, the protagonists are a haunting and nightmarish blend of Commedia dell'Arte figures and those from the paintings of artists such as George Grosz. There is an exaggerated and impossible violence in this work, which is made all the more absorbing by the openly illustrative narrative technique, with the lines of the bullets tracing their ways across the canvas. This deliberately child-like manner of presenting the episode adds an absorbing ambiguity to this image of random persecution and revenge.
Writing about The Sniper for the catalogue for his 1994 retrospective, Kitaj explained:
'There are snipers about, firing from apartments at strangers they don't like. This picture-parable is a reminder not to throw stones from glass houses. If the sniper is surprised to be taken so seriously, he or she may be lacking in imagination, which may be the reason to have become a sniper in the first place. When I was a boy, during the Second World War, I liked to draw battle scenes full of criss-cross, zinging shots exchanged by Americans and their enemies. This composition is a stagey reversion to that. The pedestrian victim becomes a Doppelgänger, reacting to phases of his wounds. In his instant of wish-fulfilment, he, or an ally, has clambered up gaily decorated dream steps to shoot back at the sniper, hitting the sniper's head. I like to think my tall stage could be cleared away for a second act, the farce removed so that a new street scene might be enacted. Maybe a more tragic version of The Sniper, for which the present events are only a comic rehearsal' (Kitaj, quoted in R. B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1994, p. 220).
The sense of violence, and of persecution, form part of Kitaj's larger obsession during the 1980s, that of his Jewishness. The Holocaust became an important touchstone for the artist, something that he sought to represent in his paintings, referring to it as a cultural equivalent to the iconic meaning of the Crucifix within Christian art. While The Sniper does not show the Holocaust, the sense of random violence, of someone possibly being shot not for their religion, their beliefs, their actions, but merely because of who they are clearly ties into Kitaj's own revelation that his own Jewishness was something that was not adopted or discarded, but instead something inescapable, a part of himself that he had been born with and which only now he began truly to represent and, through that, to confront and to celebrate.