WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, the world-famous South African artist, is often described as
a Renaissance Man. His drawing expands into video, sculpture and opera. He
explores himself and his environment through his art, reaching out into the
world history of politics, literature, music, dance and science as easily as if
he were reaching for a pencil.
But it’s also Kentridge’s theatricality
that sets him apart from other artists. He is like the ringmaster of a fabulous
one-man circus or the master at a magic show: a conjurer and juggler of ideas, a
trickster and performance artist – even a slapstick humorist.
Themes,” a mini-retrospective, is an excellent introduction to viewers who don’t
yet know Kentridge’s work. On exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until
June 18, it first opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in March
2010, coinciding with the premiere of Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s
“The Nose” at the Metropolitan Opera. The exhibition turns the galleries into a
place of drama and entertainment, greeting the viewer with an exhilarating
cacophony of music and narratives that compete for attention.
hours are needed to experience it all.
At the preview to the Jerusalem
show, Kentridge showed a split-screen film interview of himself, the artist,
facing himself, the critic, across a table. The scene was as funny as it was
relevant. The packed audience laughed with delight at the struggle between the two competing personae of
the artist – the fumbling, creative Kentridge interrogated by the impatient,
scornful Kentridge. This was artistic self-criticism brought to
Self-portrait is at the heart of Kentridge’s work and his is a
dramatized, evolving selfportrait.
He uses it in rather the same manner
as authors like Marcel Proust or Philip Roth, whose main protagonists are not
exactly themselves, but representations of themselves.
For authors like
these, their real lives intertwine transparently with their fiction.
his early videos, which are based on charcoal drawings, Kentridge depicts
himself in a pinstriped suit, or vulnerably naked, taking the part of two
characters whose names, he says, came to him in a dream.
Felix is a
romantic lover and Soho is a heartless tycoon, but both are lonely figures in an
unreliable world. The charcoal itself is vulnerable, smudgy and ephemeral, and
adds its own sense of romance and nostalgia.
IN NOVEMBER 2010, WHEN HE
received the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy, Japan’s highest honor,
Kentridge made a remarkable speech entitled “Meeting the World Halfway.” Here,
he expressed his strong feelings for Johannesburg, the city where he was born
and where he still lives and works. He has made his home and main studio in the
graceful colonial family house where he grew up, on the crest of a hill,
overlooking the leafy suburbs of affluent Johannesburg. From the stability of this home base, Kentridge views the underlying instability
of the surrounding landscape, where every tree was deliberately planted; where
the city’s mine dumps grew into a fake mountain range and then, when the gold
dust was recycled, subsided and disappeared.
And where, during the years
of gold mining, everything was regularly shaken up. The political landscape
created by the apartheid system was equally fake and unstable, causing its own
Kentridge’s art, too, is always in a state of flux
THERE IS A BUZZ OF CREATivity to be found in
Johannesburg, embattled though it has always been by politics or crime, but
free, gutsy and selfironical, nevertheless, in terms of its people and its
Kentridge has plugged into this creativity, working with local
puppet makers, musicians and other artists, capturing and expressing the fun of
it in his work.
Now the whole world has become his gallery, and the
language he has created through his art is meaningful to all
Using the simplest stop-action animation technique, Kentridge
conjures up an evanescent world of changing imagery that captivates the viewer
as it unfolds. It is a kind of visual stream of consciousness, as much about the
process of drawing as about the narrative. Soho’s coffee plunger sinks through
his breakfast tray and becomes a mineshaft, connecting his comfortable bed to an
underground of exploited laborers. Felix’s beloved disappears and reappears,
elusive even in his embrace. Kentridge depicts himself as an old man in a deck
chair at the seaside: he watches a child in a sunhat, playing on the rocks – and
that child is also himself.
Music emphasizes the mood of loss and regret
that pervades these works, as does the artist’s manner of portraying
Heavily built and balding, with a strong nose and bushy
eyebrows, Kentridge looks the image of middle-aged helplessness in a world that
is constantly changing and beyond his control.
Yet in his later
self-portrait stills and videos, Kentridge presents himself in an altogether
different light, as the confident master of events. He films himself tearing up
a life-size charcoal self-portrait and projects it backwards, as if putting the
image together, with the pieces of paper flying into his hand. He makes himself
into both the front and back of a pantomime horse, creating the horse out of a projected shadow and
gamboling across a stage.
Kentridge has an actor’s awareness of his
viewers and speaks of the “generous viewing” of the audience as an important
element in his art.
Migration is one of the themes on exhibit: shadow
processions with characters in silhouette that move across the screen. The work
is ingeniously simple and hugely evocative. The figures carry various burdens
and make their way with difficulty, accompanied by mournful folk music or a
raucous brass band – leaving a lot to the viewer’s imagination. Kentridge says
that in different parts of the world, these images are read as being very local:
whether in India, Serbia, or Africa, wherever there have been
Although his work is often seen as intrinsically political,
Kentridge has never been an activist-artist or tied himself to a political
agenda. His videos about torture and interrogation were inspired by South
Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings after the end of Apartheid. It is the
feeling and texture of human behavior that is reflected in his work – politics,
or the history of politics, is one of the mirrors in his kaleidoscopic vision.
Selfreflection is another; as is his probing into how art is made and
Throughout the years, and throughout this exhibition,
Kentridge’s favorite props keep appearing as drawings, film, cut-outs or
sculpture. “The Cat and the Coffee Cup” could be the title of a book about
Kentridge, because each embodies so much for him. But so could the coffee jug –
and the coffee itself; the megaphone and compass; books, pages and handwriting.
All of them have important roles in the rich, ongoing drama of his
“The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story about a nose that
ran away from its owner, gives Kentridge the opportunity to string his tightrope
across ideas as far-reaching and disparate as Nikolai Bukharin’s painful but
laughable interrogation by Joseph Stalin and René Magritte’s drawing of a pipe
(entitled “This Is Not APipe”). The absurd is what links them, and links back to
Apartheid South Africa, when ridiculous laws were enforced and had to be
This last theme of the exhibition is its most circus-like, with a
multitude of activity and visual excitement, including old film footage of Anna
Pavlova dancing with the Nose superimposed on her head.
a generous feast of imagery and ideas which people can put together as they
like. In the end, to use Hamlet’s words: The play’s the thing…