Before becoming a student at the Royal College of Art, Kitaj had travelled widely (he was a merchant seaman, then served in the US army) and his wide cultural horizons gave him an influential position among his contemporaries (he studied with Hockney and Allen Jones), particularly in holding up his own preference for figuration in opposition to the prevailing abstraction.
After a visit to Paris in 1975, he was inspired by Degas to take up pastel, which he has used for much of his subsequent work. Late 19th-century French art has been a major source of inspiration, as has a preoccupation with his Jewish identity, and he has said: `I took it into my cosmopolitan head that I should attempt to do Cézanne and Degas and Kafka over again, after Auschwitz.' Unlike the majority of Pop artists, Kitaj has had relatively little interest in the culture of the mass media and has evolved a multi-evocative pictorial language, deriving from a wide range of pictorial and literary sources-- indeed he has declared that he is not a Pop artist.
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