Buried in Desk Murder?
A foto-roman by John Goto
Kitaj tells us a story about this image (see RB Kitaj by Marco Livingstone, published by Phaidon Press 1985) but he also warns us against taking everything he says as gospel... anyway, the meanings of pictures change over time. I think that often when artists talk about their work they are offering less an elucidation, than an alibi. So I'm going to tell a slightly different story, one entitled 'Who is Buried in Desk Murder?'
To begin with a little about the look of the picture. We appear to be standing on a threshold looking into an interior - it's as if a tracking shot would carry us through the pane of glass and into the room. We remain, however, on the outside looking into The Office at Night.
The picture has the look of a halftone photograph or a 1940's drawing from Life.
I was interested in it partly because of its photographic space which is, however, corrupted by the collection of planes in the centre. We might think of them as stuck onto the glass in the foreground... or maybe as like the shuttering nailed up across the Reich on the morning of 10th November 1938.
Or maybe they're quasi-cubist elements, but where as cubism always holds out the promise of revealing more, these planes conceal as Kitaj tells us that buried beneath the central white rectangle is a sailor... well this would explain the globe, possibly a shipping office. But I don't buy it as the old salt reappears too often in subsequent paintings.
The picture was first shown as 'unfinished' in 1974. As you can see it looked much the same then as now, except that a kind of flue has been drawn into the white rectangle in the centre and a note of some kind was attached at that time to the top left-hand corner. Unfortunately what is says is illegible in the reproduction.
The biggest change seems to be in the title which was The Third Department, and in parenthesis A Teste Study.
The Third Department - what does it mean? Kitaj tells us it has something to do with 'political police', so maybe we have here the Red interrogation of Malevich in 1930 or of Babel in the Lubianka in '39.
But somehow I doubt it because the room lacks the authentic tools of interrogation. I prefer to think of it as referring to that basic model of montage whereby two elements come together to form a third meaning - that of the Third Department.
We have then a conflation of 'office' into montuer's 'workshop' or 'studio'.
What of A Teste Study?
In her article Who is Buried in Ornan? (in Courbet Reconsidered, ed Sarah Faunce and Linda Nochlin, published by The Brooklyn Museum 1988) Claudette Mainzer sets out to discover the identity of the corpse being buried in the great Courbet painting. She describes the attempts of the government from the time of the revolution onwards to bring order and method to the disposal of the dead in France. Ornan resisted longer than most but in 1847 was finally forced to open a new graveyard away from the church on the edge of the village. And the first person to be buried there was none other than Courbet's great-uncle, Claude-Etienne Teste.
In many ways it was appropriate that this staunch Republican, whose deeds during the revolution included the destruction of church furnishings, should be the first to be buried in this previously unconsecrated plot.
Coubet's Positavist views, the government's programme of rationalisation and Teste's atheism all point towards a new conception of death, a death without God, a death that as Proudon commented is 'the same for that of a man, as for that of an animal'.
And so we seem to have in the title a reference to the first depiction of a truly modern death.
The painting remained unfinished until the 16th May 1984, when Kitaj came across an obituary in The Times of a man named Walter Rauff. Suddenly the picture seemed to have found its principal subject, a few minor alterations and a change of title and the thing was at last finished, 'its purpose', as Kitaj remarked, 'altered in fulfilment'.
Walter Rauff is credited as being the inventor of the mobile gas vans used by the Einsatzgruppen against Jews in the occupied Eastern territories. As if from the montuer's office, the obituary informs us that Rauff had two pieces of paper on his desk; one a demand from the SS that a method of killing be found that was less of an ordeal for the executioners than the customary mass shootings, and the other was a proposal from a minor technician for the further development of carbon-monoxide as a killing agent. Rauff put the two together and came up with - gas vans.
The title Desk Murder surely refers to the employment of the modern management techniques without which the Holocaust could not have been carried out. We think here of Hannah Arandt's comments, when writing about the Eichmann trial, about the 'banality of evil' or Jean-Luc Godard's that if he were to make a movie about the Holocaust it would be about railway timetables. If we wanted an example of bureaucratic tetchiness, of office politics, we need look no further than Rauff's own correspondence; this from SS doctor August Becker...
is generally not carried out correctly. In order to get the Aktion finished
as quickly as possible the driver presses down on the accelerator as far as
it will go. As a result the persons to be executed die of suffocation and do
not doze off as was planned. It has proved that if the instructions are followed
and the levers are properly adjusted death comes faster and the prisoners fall
asleep peacefully. Distorted faces and excretions, such as were observed before,
no longer occur.'
Kiev, 16 May 1942 (see 'Documents on the Holocaust', ed Y. Arad, Y. Gutman & A. Maraliot, pub. Yad Vasham, Jerusalem 1993)
What we appear to have here is a painting about modern death in which scientific method has both exiled God and provided the means by which millions can be annihilated... by the flick of a pen.
All that remains is the question of who is buried in Desk Murder if not the mariner?
For most of the time I've been thinking about this painting I was convinced it was Boris Eikenbaum. Victor Shklovsky in his book The Writing Desk (see A Sentimental Journey, Memoirs 1917-1922 pub. Cornell University press, Ithaca & London 1970), recounts that he visited Eikenbaum during the ferocious winter of 1920 whilst the country was suffering the privations of civil war. The ink had frozen in his inkwell. Eikenbaum gathered his family together in one small room and they survived that winter by burning his library, book-by-book, page-by-page. In this same place and time Eikenbaum wrote his seminal The Young Tolstoy. This phoenix-like image of life sustained by culture appealed to me, and anyway, the room does look like a private library. It is not without its ironies either as Eikenbaum denied any causal connection between an artist's life and work, whilst Kitaj on occasions speaks of little else. But on reflection it lacked one essential ingredient of a true Kitaj - that of the confession.
And so in my fiction I turn to forensic science and the x-ray photograph to settle the matter for once and for all...
Who she is I do not know... maybe one of the countless civilian victims against whom modern warfare is waged...
or maybe it is quite different, more intimate... the death of a loved one, for with modern death comes modern grief... without ritual, without solace, without expression... a grief that in the end can only be buried. The survivor's guilt.
If you look closely under the frame in the top left-hand corner, you'll see the torn remnants of the note that was once attached... An unknown letter to an unknown woman.
On the first occasion I saw this picture, after closely inspecting its surface, I sat reading Kitaj's preface to The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (see RB Kitj: A Retrospective, ed R Morphet, pub Tate Gallery, London 1994). It was then that I noticed an elderly man sitting next to me holding a white stick. I wondered what he was getting from the exhibition...
or maybe just the sound of the slow...
echoing across the gallery floor.
First presented at the conference 'Looking at Kitaj' at the Tate Gallery, London, 1994