Jan. 2 Art Minute: R. B. Kitaj, ‘Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody—A Reverie’

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R. B. Kitaj (American, 1932–2007), Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody—A Reverie. Oil on canvas, 1961. 48 x 88 in. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Gosman, 1973.42. Wolfe Gallery

R. B. Kitaj (American, 1932–2007), Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody—A Reverie. Oil on canvas, 1961. 48 x 88 in. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Gosman, 1973.42. Wolfe Gallery

Nobody sits cross legged in high-top sneakers with a padlocked mouth, unable to verbally defend himself. R. B. Kitaj’s source for the image of Nobody was a German legend originating in the 1500s. Nobody was a scapegoat who would take the blame for any disharmony in the home. Centuries later, Nobody’s imposed silence was transformed into a symbol of patience. Eventually Nobody came to represent rebellion against corrupt government and religious institutions.

To Kitaj, the Nobody theme suggested a universal symbol personifying the human condition of frustration and helplessness. Significantly, Kitaj has envisioned Nobody as an African American man. The work was painted in 1961, during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.

Aside from the dominant figure of Nobody at the left, a woman dressing (lower right), a man sleeping (upper right), and a figure about to leave through a window (center)—all witnessed by Nobody—suggest that they are parts of an overall narrative, though one left deliberately unresolved.


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