The painter R.B. Kitaj is the darkest of contemporary masters. His bruising retrospective, which goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is an exhibit you could drown in. He was 17 years old when he left Cleveland for the sea.

One enters Kitaj's art as one would a whirlpool. Corpses and calamities swirl by in the darkness. So do clothes hangers and bathtubs, walruses and hearing aids, and the distorted visages of Batman and Red Schoendienst. The cries of Jewish victims -- and the moans of Spanish whores -- mingle in the turbulence with quotes from Pound and T.S. Eliot, Picasso and Degas. One cannot grab for safety at the elusive and allusive fragments Kitaj paints. The current is too strong. There is no time to savor the rightness of his draftsmanship or the power of his portraiture. The kaleidoscope is turning. His show grows ever denser, until, at the end -- in the single-image pictures with which it concludes -- the viewer is left nothing save the certainty of suffering, of fear and of mortality.

The painter's home is London. Kitaj's name is Russian (it is pronounced Kit-eye), his beard is short and gray, his manner is rabbinical, his eyes as fierce and light as those of a Viking. As he speaks he squints. It is as if his gaze has left the room. He is ransacking his memory, searching all that he has felt, and seen and thought and known.

He paints, he says, "to coin a remembrance of unhappiness."

Kitaj's work is literate, lacerating, lush, elegant and coarse, traditional and radical. And it is all these things at once. He paints what the visitors to the French salons used to call machines. He summons in his pictures literatures and histories, a hundred different styles, cityscapes and crimes, grids, and Auschwitz, too. His paintings are amazing. They ought to fly apart, but they never lose their balance.

Certain masters paint the lovely -- think of Botticelli's nymphs, and those of Fragonard, and the brilliant, reassuring colors of Matisse. Others show the noble -- the men of Michelangelo, and those of Rodin, are less men than gods. The muse that Kitaj serves is neither nymph nor goddess. Kitaj serves the hag.

He is one of those rare artists -- like Goya, Grosz or Rothko -- who finds his light in darkness, who sears us with his pain, who, when he shows the rose, makes us feel the thorn. "I cleave to Kafka," says Kitaj. "As to why some of us are drawn to hellish themes and others wish only to witness the sublime, I can't presume to know."

Yet despite its hellishness, and the idiot-laughter in it, and the agony that soaks it, Kitaj's art is thrilling. For his darkness leads to brightness, his whirlpool to release. What exhilarates the viewer most is his art's evasiveness.

The Kitaj retrospective, organized by Joe Shannon, brings here more than 100 pictures, the first from 1958, the last from 1980. Not one of these pictures -- with their crotch shots and their histories, their monsters and distortions, their prams and lamps and written words, their splashes, drips and grids, and their portraits of the artist's friends -- can be completely read. Why does that purple cat in "Man of the Woods and Cat of the Mountains" (1973) have a human face? Why does it shake hands with a man who has the bright red body of an ape? Though Kitaj will say, when pressed, that "the cat is being shown a better life ouside the window," the questions that his edgy pictures ask are questions without answers.

There is no way the viewer can look at Kitaj's art without looking at himself. Even if you share with R.B. Kitaj his love of "The Red Shoes," of the American League and Eliot, Degas, Britian and the sea; even if your parents are, as his were, foreign-born, socialist and Jewish; even if you feel you understand his heart, the heart that you experience beating in his art is not his heart, but your own. His pictures are emblems that, like mirrors, reflect what's in your soul.

Kitaj is a liberator. He helped liberate David Hockney (they were classmates, in the '50s, at the Royal College of Art). He helped free modern art from its closed-minded fawning on pure abstraction. And he helped tear down the walls that for so many years kept literature and scholarship and poetry and history from the realm of art. Kitaj has been linked to Eliot, Pound, and Henry James, to Whistler and Sargent, expatriates, who, too, helped change the art of England. His retrospective at the Hirshhorn returns to his native land a master in full stride. It closes Nov. 15.