Art Review: William Kentridge

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Multimedia Master William Kentridge
Animates the Museum of Modern Art
& the Metropolitan Opera

Those fortunate enough to secure tickets for the all-too-brief run at the Metropolitan Opera of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s 1928 opera, The Nose, produced and designed by artist William Kentridge, could later carry their ticket stubs to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a 50 percent discount off the admission price to see William Kentridge: Five Themes, though to digest the entire feast required a second trip.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1955, Kentridge grew up in the midst of apartheid.  Early on he joined in the struggle to end it, cofounding at age 20 a theater company to stage works of resistance–writing, producing, designing and acting in many of the plays.  Since 1978 when he created his first animated film, Kentridge has used theater, film and the graphic arts to address political, social, personal and artistic issues.

The extravaganza at MoMA presented a cornucopia of treats that started with the 1989, mostly charcoal and chalk, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, first in the series, Drawings for Projection; continued on to the present with the artist’s visualizations of his own creative process featured in the studio scenes of 7 Fragments for George Méliès (2009); and encompassed the puppetry, staging and music for The Magic Flute (2003) and animation and dance films for The Nose (2010).

The man who has produced this huge, wide-ranging body of work has this to say about his work habits:  “Walking, thinking, stalking the image.  Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours of walking, pacing back and forth across the space gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark…It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture), a different, invisible work must be done” (exhibition wall text).

Aptly illustrating that description of his struggles, one of the 7 Fragments, depicts Kentridge wandering back and forth in front of a drawing of a hat tacked to his white studio wall while papers fly into his hands as if by magic.  Projected in reverse, all of Fragments casts the artist as sorcerer, giving drawings a life of their own.  In another of these endlessly looping short films, a torn, three-quarter length portrait of Kentridge reassembles, comes to life and walks away.

Much like writers who claim they don’t control their characters, Kentridge confronts a drawing that changes itself.  In Movable Assets, another part of Fragments, trees fall off the page, the entire image morphs and ultimately dissolves completely as the artist tries in vain to catch it in the act.  He redraws it with gestures of wiping it off, a trick made possible by running the film backwards.

Kentridge, a magician, makes things appear and disappear.  A trickster, he plays loose with notions of reality and representation.  A shape-shifter, he seamlessly transforms objects.  Those skills are most evident in the animated films about Felix and Soho (1989-2003), composed of mostly charcoal drawings, erased and redrawn with pentimenti as witness to the process.  In Thick Time:  Soho and Felix, the Tide Table segment (2003), cattle waste away to skeletons and turn to rocks in the surf while Soho, the suited businessman, reclines in a beach chair and military types on a balcony survey the scene through binoculars.

Those who missed the show at MoMA can still see excerpts from the films online, listen to the artist discuss his work, and read a bit about his life.  Unfortunately, no catalog accompanied the exhibit.  The next time a Kentridge production comes to a theater or museum nearby, waste no time in buying tickets and scheduling a visit, the only way to truly savor this polymath’s work.

William Kentridge:  Five Themes
Mark Rosenthal,  editor.
(Includes a DVD created by Kentridge
for the book.)

Available at for $31.50.