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Recent acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj - British Museum

RB Kitaj, Yaller Bird, 1964, Screenprint.

Exhibition preview

RECENT acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj, an exhibition that gives an extraordinary glimpse into the breadth of the 11,000 prints and drawings acquired by the British Museum over the past five years, is on display in Room 90 from May 30 to September 1, 2013.

The 130 pieces on display show how the Museum’s collection of graphic works has grown in recent years through generous gifts and bequests.

The collection’s unique breadth and depth is displayed in three distinct sections that span continents and centuries – from Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) to challenging American painter and printmaker R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) and includes contemporary pieces such as Grayson Perry’s Pilgrimage to the British Museum, which he drew for his critically acclaimed exhibition Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum (October 2011 – February 2012).

One third of the exhibition is dedicated to the work of Kitaj, whose extraordinarily generous gift of 293 prints and 18 drawings were presented to the British Museum shortly before his death in 2007. This display of 49 pieces is the first presentation of his prints in London for two decades and offers a timely opportunity to reassess this artist’s graphic output.

His gift contained the major suites of prints from the 1960s and 1970s – including the magisterial In our Time series, as well as rarely seen prints such as Yaller Bird and the Red Dancer of Moscow.

Kitaj worked in London for almost 40 years and it was here he developed his early style and influenced many of his close circle of friends including David Hockney, who he met at the Royal College of Art, and Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, all of whom he would include in his 1976 exhibition The Human Clay. This was a daring celebration of figurative art and led Kitaj to reject his earlier body of prints and to concentrate on drawing the human form. However he still produced graphic work mostly as lithographic prints which captured the quality of his drawn work.

Kitaj was one of the major artists of the twentieth century, and had always wanted his prints to reside alongside the Old Masters in the British Museum. Kitaj’s offer of the gift was made shortly before his death in 2007, making the Museum’s holdings of the artist’s works on paper the most comprehensive in Europe.

Another third of the exhibition is decicated to modern Italian graphic works – including Gastone Novelli’s drawing from 1960: Untitled (Homage to Samuel Beckett). The remaining third shows a range of works from the 16th to the 21st centuries – from devotional prints to satires. Among these are an engraving of 1577 by Johannes van Doetecum, illustrating popular proverbs, a heartbreaking etching by Francisco de Goya entitled El amor y la muerte (Love and death), and two Picasso linocuts from the 1960s.

The Museum’s acquisitions budget has been supplemented by the generosity of many individuals and organisations – including the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the British Museum Friends, the Friends of Prints and Drawings, the Ottley Group, and the Vollard Group. Four important works were allocated to the Museum by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax.

The exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see a fascinating cross-section of recent acquisitions by the Department of Prints and Drawings – made possible by the ongoing support of a broad range of patrons and benefactors.

Admission: Free.

Times: Saturday to Thursday 10am to 5.30pm, Friday 10am to 8.30pm.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Website: www.britishmuseum.org/

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is on display at the British Museum until September 29, 2013.