Art of an icon

In Israel recently to receive this year's Dan David Prize, William Kentridge discusses his life and art.

William Kentridge's art 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
William Kentridge's art 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Born 57 years ago in Johannesburg, William Kentridge is one of South Africa’s leading artists, known throughout the world for his unapologetically disturbing drawings, animated films and performance art. A third-generation South African from a Lithuanian Jewish family, Kentridge is the son of two prominent civil rights lawyers who are famous for fighting apartheid. His mix of politics and a uniquely stark, angry artistic vision propelled him to fame in the 1980s. Since then, his works have been exhibited and performed throughout the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, La Scala in Milan, the Israel Museum and the Louvre.
At the core of Kentridge’s work are figurative charcoal drawings, mostly monochromatic gray, with occasional touches of muted pastel colors. His signature style of animation involves drawing a key frame, making light erasures to certain parts of the drawing, redrawing the frame, making more erasures and redrawing. The traces of the erasures suggest the passing of time and the fading of memory. Kentridge utilized this technique in a series of nine short films that, with grim gray depictions of devastated landscapes, wounded bodies and broken dreams, chronicled the fading of pre-democracy South African apartheid. Since then, Kentridge has become a strikingly diverse artist, whose works encompass a range of genres such as sculpture, large installations, film, opera and performance art.
Kentridge has received multiple awards, as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of London and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was chosen to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University last April. And to top it all off, he is perhaps the only person on Earth since Franklin D. Roosevelt who actually wears pince-nez eyeglasses – without affectation, replete with a safety cord.
In Israel recently to receive this year’s Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University – along with historians Robert Conquest and Sir Martin Gilbert and human genome researchers David Botstein, Craig Venter and Eric Lander – Kentridge sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his life and art.
Were you drawn to art at an early age?
In retrospect, yes. In my bedroom there was a beautiful Miro painting. In the dining room we had a Matisse and a Cezanne, and a Modigliani in the hall. It was only when I was about 15 or 16 that I realized that these were in fact prints and not the original paintings.
And I think there were riddles in those paintings that intrigued me. Is that a line in the Cezanne? Is that a person or is it a drain at the edge of the road? Why does one leaf that Matisse painted look like a leaf while the other is a strange abstract shape? I realized later that the intriguing part of looking at those pictures day after day were the riddles one couldn’t solve, rather than the riddles one could.
Apart from that, all children draw. No child at the age of five isn’t drawing – on the wall, on a piece of paper, in books or whatever. A lot of children stop drawing when they are 10 or 12. I went on.
Who were your early influences?
When I was about 13 or 14 I saw an artist named Dumile Feni. He worked with largescale figurative charcoal drawings. And when, years later, that’s what I spent my life making, I realized that those images of his must have been deeply buried inside me.
Certainly, seeing someone working in this way was a model for understanding that a picture didn’t have to be oil paint on canvas, which was kind of the expected way for artists to work. And it took a long time for me to understand that was not what I was going to do, and that my work would be drawing in one monochromatic form or another.
You studied mime and acting, but you did not become a mime or an actor. Why not?
I started to draw, and then gave that up when I decided that I had no right to be an artist. Hadn’t anything to say. For three years I stopped. So then I thought I’d better become an actor, because I had been working in student theater groups. Went to theater school and discovered after three weeks that I should not be an actor. So then when I saw that I couldn’t be an artist, that I couldn’t act, I decided I’d better work in the film industry.
And the South African film industry was so depressing, so terrible in that period. I worked there for a few years and discovered that in spite of myself, somehow, I was back in the studio, making drawings. I was kind of rescued by a series of failures – my failure as an actor, as a filmmaker. At the age of 30, I was reduced to being an artist.
Did you have any sort of Jewish upbringing?
My grandfather on my mother’s side was not a religious man but he had a great belief in insisting on our Jewishness. There were Friday night suppers at my grandparents’ house, to which my parents would hardly ever come.
They were reacting against their parents’ generation and were much more secular. And there were the usual bar mitzvas and desultory attendance at synagogue. And if I had to say at that time what being Jewish was, being Jewish was about suppers, about eating.
Did Judaism – or being Jewish – inform or influence your art in any way?
I would say no. I do see themes in my work that one sees in many Jewish artists.
Maybe there are influences at the subconscious level. You draw someone in a pinstripe suit, and some people see that as the striped pajamas of the concentration camp.
You draw a shower in a mine, or a shower anywhere, and some people make similar connections. There might be unconscious connections coming from the inside – these memories, these images – and certainly from the outside from people looking and picking these things up.
Your parents were prominent civil rights lawyers who took on anti-apartheid cases. Do you derive your social and political activism from them?
I think I was aware from a very young age of the unnaturalness of South African society.
For many of the white children growing up there, there was a naturalization of the world they lived in – only white kids in their school, that the school was only for white people.
Those kinds of things are abominations if you look at them from outside. And because of my family’s involvement in dealing with these huge injustices, I grew up understanding that this was an unnatural, unstable world. And so the outside perspective of a world out of kilter, out of order, needing to be transformed, was a given in my upbringing.
That somewhat outside perspective of South African society, and such clear contradictions in the society certainly became very much a way of seeing the world and informed the art I was creating. It still does.
If you were living and working here in Israel, what kinds of statements – cultural, social, political – would you be making with your art?
My work would be completely charged with the contradictions here, some of which are similar to those of South Africa. These are not contradictions that are unique to South Africa and Israel, but they are heightened in those two countries, compared to what they would be elsewhere. The contrast between a wealthy, comfortable life, and places where you know there is extreme hardship and poverty a few kilometers away can be found everywhere. But a roadblock and checkpoint 50 kilometers away and the life on the beach here in Tel Aviv is a contradiction that is immediately closer. So when you live in a country like South Africa or Israel, you can’t avoid these contradictions. They are part of everyday thinking, and unavoidable.
There are a lot of attempts these days to draw similarities between apartheid-era South Africa and present-day Israel. Do you agree with this analogy?
 I think there are a lot of similarities, but the differences are enormous. The similarities are there in the daily humiliation of people, the way people are treated in the West Bank at roadblocks, rules about what roads people can use and can’t use. These are very similar to the daily humiliations in South Africa during apartheid. And the rage that that engenders – that South Africa experienced and managed to get through – is here as well. But South Africa had a historical solidity for generations and a purely internal focus that made concessions and compromises possible.
Here, everything is inflected by things going on outside the country, and a historical memory of where Israelis come from, of Jewish history in the 20th century, that inevitably affects how people feel in terms of openness, in terms of protectiveness.
To what extent does art really have the power to effect social or political change?
When it stops trying to, it becomes possible.
When I think of the work I did at the beginning of my career – things like political posters for trade unions and theatrical plays done for shop stewards – it was thinking on behalf of other people. It had a kind of condescension built into it, like, “What will black trade unionists in South Africa who left school at 14 understand? How simple do I have to make things to explain it?” It became an inauthentic thing, and in the end the only way it became possible was to think on my own behalf, to ask, does this intrigue me, in the hope that if I did my work conscientiously, there would be other people who would respond to it.
And then I thought art has an enormous role in the way we construct ourselves. When you think about who you are, you see the elements of yourself that have been recognized and reinforced in films that you’ve seen, in particular books you’ve read, in periods in which you’ve listened to a certain kind of music that constitute your biography, that make you who you are. I think that that’s the way in which art is essential and powerful. It’s at the level of the individual. I don’t think that one can say, “Here is an image that people will see and be transformed en masse,” or “Here is a piece of music that will be so rousing that people will march in the streets and transform the world.” I don’t think it works that way.
Has your work changed the way people think about art, of imagining reality?
I would be delighted if it has, but very often those parts of the work that seem to be the strong parts, the parts that have intrigued people, like the traces of the erasure marks and the ability to see the partially-erased marks shifting across the paper, were all mistakes. These were things I tried very hard to get rid of. I tried very hard to make such good erasures that nothing would be left, and I failed. I was left with the failure of the erasure of the marks. And I would apologize to everyone, saying that I was trying to get a better eraser. It took other people, from outside of the process, to say, “No, we like that.
The marks are in fact what’s interesting.” So it wasn’t me thinking, “Oh yes, this is how I’ll show the passage of time.” I had to be shown what it was that I was doing.
When you receive the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University, you will be sharing that honor with such cultural icons as Robert Conquest and Sir Martin Gilbert. Are you an icon too?
 Not to my family.