Art Essays

William Kentridge

Published May 1, 2008

William Kentridge was born and bred in Johannesburg, and has continued to reside in South Africa while the world clamours for his work. One of the reasons for Kentridge’s exceptional popularity is the way he unites aspects of cultural experience that are often seen as irreconcilable. His work is both international and intensely localised. He takes the most sweeping approach to politics and history, but uses a language of small, intimate gestures. As a visual artist, he is continually looking for ways to lift his images off the page and bring them to life – through the mediums of animated film, installation, theatre, opera, or puppet show – as the fertility of his imagination pushes him in many different directions simultaneously.
The local or provincial aspect of Kentridge’s work is apparent in the way his films and drawings continually refer to the recent history of South Africa and the injustices of the apartheid era, which only came to an end in 1994 with the first free elections in the nation’s history. The chief protagonist in a series of animated films is Soho Eckstein, a ruthless property developer, whose rise and fall, humiliation and redemption, echoes the recent experience of white South Africa. His antagonist is Felix Teitlebaum – a dreamer whose fantasies eventually surge up as an overpowering torrent that obliterates Soho’s empire.
Having spent almost forty years of his life under the apartheid system, Kentridge’s life and memories are inextricably bound up with that period. In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s election, issues of reconciliation and reparation were dramatised by the Truth Commissions, which offered a pardon to those who freely confessed to crimes committed under the previous regime. Kentridge has drawn on these events for multi-media pieces such as Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), but the ambiguous feelings generated by these cathartic events have provided a subtext that runs through almost all his work.
A work of art has maximum impact when it refers to things that are close to the artist’s own heart, born from personal experience. On the other hand, a work grows in complexity and universality when the artist is aware of historical precedents, of the great precursors that have set the stage for the art of the present day. In the nineteenth century this was summed up in the invocation that an aspiring artist must study both Nature and the Old Masters. For Kentridge, the Old Masters are not sufficient for his purposes. While he has made films and drawings that relate directly to the work of artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt, he has also drawn upon writers such as Alfred Jarry and Italo Svevo; composers such as Mozart and Monteverdi, and the pioneering film-maker, Georges Melies.
Each of these figures has a distinct place in western cultural history, and Kentridge has worked to relate their images and ideas to the predicaments of recent history. His production of The Magic Flute was also an analysis of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the colonialist violence that followed. His use of Jarry’s Pere Ubu – the modern theatrical embodiment of strutting, tyrannical state power – is an obvious reference to the brutality and paranoia of the former South African government.
What emerges is an extraordinary interweaving of the universal and the specific, bringing out a quality in earlier works of art that defines them as “classics”. That is: the innate ability to appeal to audiences from different eras and different parts of the world in a way that seems perennially fresh and relevant to their own concerns.
For Kentridge each body of work represents a unique blend of the public and the personal, as he draws himself as Felix Teitlebaum, or inserts his self-portrait into films and drawings. We are made constantly aware that we are viewing these works through the shaping sensibility of the artist, who makes no attempt to provide a simple window onto the world. In Kentridge’s works, life is a complex and puzzling drama, staged according to the logic of a dream.
This is not, however, an arbitrary arrangement, because there are political and moral lessons to be drawn from these highly theatrical scenarios. This approach, which sets out to capture the viewer’s imagination only to open up a course of deeper reflection, has echoes of Brecht’s famous “alienation effect” in the theatre. Kentridge, like Brecht, would like us to stand back and think about the striking images he presents. What appears at first to be mysterious becomes gradually more familiar and comprehensible.
If Kentridge is not as dogmatic as Brecht, and is willing to include moments of fleeting, gratuitous beauty, it is because he recognizes that we are not entirely rational creatures. Whatever our political or spiritual beliefs, we are always likely to be beset with doubts or distracted by the pleasures of the senses. This humanistic philosophy is one of the hallmarks of Kentridge’s work.
Perhaps the artist’s most original contribution to the language of art has been his method of making animated films. In interviews he has referred to his “illiterate” or “stone-age” approach to film-making. The Belgian critic, Philippe Moins, once described him as “a perfect autodidact of animation.”
Kentridge draws pictures with charcoal on a piece of paper, photographs the result, and then sets to work with the eraser, changing the original image, re-photographing it, and so on. This laborious method may result in an entire film being made from no more than forty sheets of well-worn paper. The crude, grainy texture of these films, the way images seem to spring up and disappear spontaneously, or morph into new identities, is analogous to the mechanisms of personal memory. At all times we are busy forgetting – or erasing – unpleasant facts. We distort, rearrange, and find more congenial shapes for those things that trouble our consciences. Many strange images emerge from this willful erasure, as the unconscious mind struggles against the urge to forget.
To conceptualise an image it must first be perceived, and Kentridge has become increasingly interested in the way we translate visual data into mental forms. In 2000 he constructed a Phenakistoscope – an invention of 1830 that allows a rudimentary impression of moving images. During a residency at the Städelschule in Frankfurt in 2007, he created a series of drawings to be viewed anamorphically and stereoscopically.
Kentridge’s What Will Come is believed to be the first-ever anamorphic film. When installed, it projects a distorted image onto a mirrored cylinder in the centre of a table. In the reflection the image is corrected and made recognizable. In the stereoscopic works the viewer looks through a special device that fuses two separate images into a three-dimensional form.
Beyond the technical sophistication of these works there is a dense play of meaning. In the film, Kentridge investigates an historical episode when the Italians used poison gas on African soldiers during their invasion of Abyssinia. This bloody encounter between Europe and Africa is another chapter in the history of a colonialist mentality that may be traced back to the Enlightenment – the era of Mozart’s Magic Flute.
His stereoscopic images borrow heavily from the etchings of Albrecht Dürer, including the famous print of a Rhinoceros that the artist knew only from a sketch made by a friend. The rhino is almost as exotic to us today as it was to Dürer – a symbol of the mystery that Africa presents to the West. Characteristically, it is a symbol that is only to be viewed in zoos, as the animal itself draws closer to extinction. In an oblique manner Kentridge suggests that every advance in knowledge brings with it some element of violence.
The drawings, prints and small sculptures in this exhibition are part of the mass of collateral material generated by Kentridge’s designs for The Magic Flute, which occupied his attention from 1998, when he first received the commission from the Opera de la Monnaie in Brussels; to 2007, when the final leg of a world tour was held in Johannesburg. Another source is a commission for The Nose, an opera by Shostakovich, based on a story by Gogol, to be staged by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 2010.
With both projects, Kentridge has researched the history of the operas, the writers and composers, and the times in which they lived. His investigations take the form of numerous drawings and small sculptures in which he begins to map out the iconography of the production. The Nose (1836) is an absurd tale of a minor official who wakes one morning to find his nose has disappeared. As he sights the nose in various guises on the streets of St. Petersburg the satire becomes more riotous and surreal – although critics have never agreed on exactly what Gogol was trying to say. At the very least, it is a fable about social status, self-esteem and insecurity. It demonstrates the significance invested in those small, everyday things that we take for granted. It shows how one’s world can be thrown into turmoil with a disturbance to a social mask. It is a project that continues and extends Kentridge’s ongoing investigation into the fragile foundations of personal identity – a quest that seems no less relevant to present day New York, Sydney or Johannesburg than it was to imperial Russia.
Catalogue Essay published for Annandale Galleries, June 2008