A Generous Feast of Imagery

South Africa’s William Kentridge brings artistic self-criticism to life.

Ketridge_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
“Five 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.
Several 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 life.
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.
In 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 far-reaching tremors.
Kentridge’s art, too, is always in a state of flux and transformation.
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 culture.
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 nations.
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 himself.
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 migrations.
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 perceived.
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 art.
“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 obeyed.
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.
Kentridge offers 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…