William Kentridge: living in black and white

William Kentridge is a South African multidisciplinary artist best known for his drawings, paintings, and animated films. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, where he currently lives and works, Kentridge received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and African Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. He then went on to earn a diploma in Fine Arts from the Johannesburg Art Foundation. The prolific writer has earned numerous awards and honorary doctorates from Yale and the University of London. His most recent awards include the Kyoto Award, the Dan David Prize, and the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Kentridge’s Five Themes exhibition was included in the 2009 Time 100 – the annual list of one hundred top people and events globally.

The Heart has Its Own Memory Exhibition. MMoCA. 2016.

Kentridge’s animated films have been called innovative and extraordinary. Constructed by filming his drawings, making erasures and changes, and then filming it again, the process is meticulous and precise. Each change to the drawing equals a quarter of a second to two seconds’ screen time. One single drawing will be altered and filmed in this matter until the end of each scene. These drawings are then displayed along with the film as finished works of art.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015. Installation view, EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, 2015. Courtesy William Kentridge, Marian Goodman Gallery, Goodman Gallery and Lia Rumma Gallery. Photo: Studio Hans Wilschut.

Kentridge has several animated films, including Memo, Ubu Tells the Truth, Journey to the Moon, and others. In his talk with SFMOMA, the artist describes his process of “repeatedly erasing and reworking charcoal drawings to create his well-known stop-motion animated films.” Kentridge’s films, which use only charcoal and touches of blue or red pastel, have led him to be considered one of South Africa’s top artists. The stories embedded within the animated movements represent his birthplace. However, he presents the two-sided emotional pull from emotional and political struggles, exemplifying what many South Africans experienced in the pre-democracy era.

The Refusal of Time with collaboration of Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison, Film Still. 2012. Courtesy William Kentridge, Marian Goodman Gallery, Goodman Gallery and Lia Rumma Gallery.

The exhibition, Five Themes, earned Kentridge a spot on the Time 100 list and was awarded First Place in the 2009 International Association of Arts Critics Awards for best monographic museum show nationally. The exhibition featured five primary themes that have engaged Kentridge over three decades. The first theme, Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio,” discusses the turning point of Kentridge’s career by examining his own practice as the subject. 

Studio Life: Exercise 1, 2021.
Felix in Exile. 1994.

The second theme, “Thick Time: Soho and Felix,” discusses Kentridge’s fictional characters, Soho Eckstein – a domineering industrialist and real estate developer, and his sensitive alter ego Felix Teitlebaum, who pines for Eckstein’s wife and functions as a surrogate for the artist. The critical pieces of this second series follow Soho and Felix as they try to navigate Johannesburg’s social and political climate during apartheid.

Drawing for the film Stereoscope [Felix Crying], 1998-99.

Occasional and Resudiual Hope: Ubu and the Procession encompasses the third theme. In 1975 Kentridge performed in Ubu Rex, Alfred Jarry’s adaptation of Ubu Roi. Kentridge went on to devote a significant body of work to the play. Through a series of eight etchings, titled Ubu Tells the Truth, Kentridge created an animated film of the same name a year later.

Ubu Drawing (Sleeper). 1997
The Magic Flute by William Kentridge.

The fourth theme of Kentridge’s Five Themes is the 2005 production of Sarastro and the Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute, which was produced at La Monnaie, the leading opera house in Belgium. Approximately fifty drawings were used to create the scenic design and animation for the opera. Before the La Monnaie production, Kentridge built a model theater titled Preparing the Flute based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute. With a fascination for theater, Kentridge constructed a model of an Italian-style proscenium that framed a projection of animations based on the classical genius’ two-part opera.

Preparing the Flute. 2005.

The talented craftsman described the structure as “a metaphor for the transformation from dark to light” through the experience of Mozart’s protagonists. The miniature theater, which captures light and brings imaginary scenes, served as a camera obscura during the Queen of the Night’s famous aria as fireworks and stars fill the sky. Preparing the Flute was created with charcoal, pastel, colored pencil drawings, and 35mm animated film was transferred to video. The model was made to prepare for the operatic production, slightly larger than the usual Marquette of a theater used in set design, yet large enough to see and test the essential projections. The wood structure had five progressive wings that marked out the perspective of the space and served as a frame for the video projected onto the stage. 

Preparing the Flute. 2005.
Another Kheppi Ending, 2009

The fifth and final theme is Learning from the Absurd: The Nose. A man wakes one day and finds his nose is gone. He searches throughout the city for it, and once he sees it, he discovers that his nose is of a higher rank than he is. His nose refuses to speak to him! This is the main narrative of the short story by Nikolai Gogal, published in 1836. It eventually became a Metropolitan Opera production in 2010. The piece included a multichannel projection of Kentridge’s work, based on Gogol’s story that examined Russian modernism and the suppression of the Russian avant-garde.

The Nose, as conceived by William Kentridge
Office Love. 2001

In addition to William Kentridge’s drawings, paintings, and animations, the artist also created extraordinary tapestries. Each woven piece has a collage effect that feels cinematic within their large-scale dimensions. Staying true to his political nature, Kentridge created thought-provoking compositions in the Porter Series by presenting “images of anonymous people whose lives are divorced from the affairs of national geopolitics and indiscernible from the viewpoint of a seemingly mandatory course of world history.” The characters within the tapestries are portrayed as nomadic as tapestry itself – an easily portable form of artwork. Kentridge presents a world of people on the move, characterizing not just migration and interaction among individuals but also introspection and creation by examining the greater world around us.

Espagne Ancienne (Porter With Dividers). 2005

The absurd, with its rupture of rationality-of conventional ways of seeing the world-is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. 

William Kentridge.

Tamara White is an artist, scholar, and bon vivant ready to welcome in 2022. Cheers for a Happy New Year.

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