When RB Kitaj’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery opened in 1994 it was supposed to crown the career of one of Britain’s great post-war painters.

But the American was savaged by the critics.

London Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell believed Kitaj (pronounced Kit-i) was “unworthy of a footnote in the history of figurative art”.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, writing in The Independent, was equally unsparing. He signed off a piece about the “inveterate name-dropper” with a ruthless epilogue: “The Wandering Jew, TS Eliot of painting? Kitaj turns out, instead, to be the Wizard of Oz: a small man with a megaphone held to his lips.”

More tragedy followed for Kitaj. His second wife and muse, the painter Sandra Fisher, died of a brain aneurysm two weeks after the show had opened.

“What was very tragic about the Tate incident is that Kitaj took it so personally,” says Simon Martin, head of curatorial services at Pallant House Gallery, which has the larger half of a two-part joint retrospective with London’s Jewish Museum opening tomorrow.

“It was very personal. It went beyond the work.”

Defying his critics

Kitaj called the attacks the Tate War. Three years later he turned his back on the country he had called home for 40 years. Ronald Brooks, as he was christened in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932, felt the only place where he could disappear was LA. He took a self-imposed exile in the city with his young son, Max, and worked manically, fuelled by a spiralling hatred for British critics.

“The tragic coincidental death of his wife and the criticism – he framed these things in his mind together when actually the public response to the exhibition was positive,” adds Martin, who does not expect to see Sewell wandering around the first British show since Kitaj’s suicide in 2007 and the most comprehensive view since 1994.

Friends and admirers also rated him highly. Important painters such as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and David Hockney.

Indeed, a group of Kitaj’s friends, led by Colin St John “Sandy” Wilson, rallied support for Kitaj after the 1994 show. Wilson sent correspondence to David Hockney, Lucien Freud, Peter Blake, Leon Kossoff and Michael Andrews, who added their signatures to letters addressed to detractors.

Some of the dispatches are in the Pallant show thanks to the late Wilson’s wife, architect MJ Long, whose practice Long & Kentish designed the gallery’s extension, the Jewish Museum’s refurbishment and Kitaj’s London studio.

Works donated by MJ Long to the gallery’s permanent collection hang beside loans from around the world. Martin says it makes for a “well-timed” six-room retrospective.

“It is often the way following an artist’s death that there is a reappraisal. This exhibition is an opportunity to look at Kitaj again and consider why he is such an important artist and whether he continues to be relevant.

“There are nearly 70 works in the show from MOMA in New York, Astrup Fearnley in Norway, various German collections as well as Tate, so these are major paintings and they seem it.”

He picks out Reflections On Violence which has come from Hamburg as an example in the opening room. “Even though it was painted 40 years ago it seems incredibly contemporary. The devices of painting and collage he was using in the 1960s have a lot in common with what contemporary artists are doing.”

In the 1960s, Kitaj, together with Francis Bacon, Auerbach, Freud, Kossoff and Andrews, created the School of London – a term Kitaj had first proposed in his exhibition The Human Clay in 1976.

They flew the flag of figurative painting when it was distinctly unfashionable.

Four of the painters were Jewish, including Kitaj. His mother, Jeanne Brooks, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. His stepfather, Walter Kitaj, fled Nazi persecution in Vienna. Kitaj worked as a merchant seaman on a Norwegian cargo ship before enrolling in art school in New York and later Vienna. He was conscripted into the US army as a GI and on leaving came to England, where he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford and London’s Royal College of Art.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the nomadic lifestyle, Jewishness came to define his identity. By the mid-1970s he had positioned himself as the Jewish intellectual outsider. In 1989 he published the First Diasporist Manifesto, which discussed the Jewish dimension in his art and thought. Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin were heroes. Notes on his work explained the references and it was these messages, in part, which irritated the commentariat: no critic wants to be told what to think.

Analyst For Our Time covers his working life from the 1960s to 2007. Martin says one has to spend time with the work because it is not as instant as Peter Blake’s or Patrick Caulfield, whom Kitaj was lumped in with.

“The responses have been really interesting. There is huge excitement even if people don’t immediately understand the work. There is a real sense of Kitaj’s artistic journey in the way we have installed it.”

The final painting is perhaps the most telling: The Killer-Critic Assassinated By His Widower, Even.

“It is such a personal thing. It relates to Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. He gives the critics everything they have criticised him for and more. Collaged elements, references to art history, references to literature, quotes that he changes, complex titles.

“He explains everything deliberately.”

  • Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester, February 23 to June 16.
  • One ticket for both the RB Kitaj and Barbara Hepworth exhibitions costs: Adult – £9 Child – £3.50 Student – £5.50 Family – £21.50.
  • Pallant House Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Thursday from 10am to 8pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm, closed Mondays. For more information, call 01243 774557