[Note: To respect copyright concerns, the slide show that accompanies the following review is available only for private viewing. Interested readers should contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org]
The Moral Aesthetic of
“…a drawing is a membrane between the world coming toward us and our projected understanding of the world, a negotiation between ourselves and that which is outside…”
William Kentridge, 2014
Wandering into his father’s study when he was six years old, William Kentridge became curious about the contents of a large, flat, yellow box sitting on the desk. Thinking it might contain chocolates, he lifted the lid to find not the expected treats, but photographs of victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the families of whom his father was representing in court (Fig. 2).
In recounting the story in 2001, the artist described two of the images, “…a woman with her back blown off” and “someone with only half her head visible.”
Over a dozen years later, he told the story again, with added details and a description of several other pictures, including this sequence of two: “A man lies face downward, a dot and a dark stain in the center of his checkered jacket…the man rolled over…the whole chest disintegrated by the exit wound of the bullet,” and a third, “[a]nother chest…blown apart.” The resulting jolt of “nonrecognition,” as the artist called it, eventually wore off, leaving in its wake a lifelong yearning to recapture the intense clarity of that childhood moment, before repeated exposures to pictures of “extraordinary adult violence” rendered them too familiar to elicit the same powerful reaction.
The theme of memory and its temporal degradation weaves through Kentridge’s oeuvre, a collection of stand-alone works on paper, drawings turned into animated films, multimedia installations, stage designs, theater productions, puppet shows–even a couple of operas, and a performance piece in which he took the role of narrator. A prolific and versatile artist, Kentridge–who is white–grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid–a system of laws promulgated by the reigning Nationalist Party–aimed at consolidating white minority rule by exiling people of color to the outskirts of economic and social life. The “brutal enforcement” of these laws increasingly separated Kentridge’s country from the rest of the world as foreign nations imposed sanctions and limited travel in mounting protest.
An exceptionally accessible and articulate artist, Kentridge has often ruminated publicly about the relationship between his life and his art. Yet in descriptions of his early brushes with the stark realities of apartheid (Fig. 3), his words fall short of the expressive power of his drawings, which render graphically far more dramatically the ravages wrought by the South African government and, indirectly, the profound impact on the artist of living among them for his first forty years.
Acknowledging a preference for images over “language and logic,” Kentridge explained that among other reasons for his becoming an artist was his need to find a field “in which the construction of fictional authorities and imagined quotes would be a cause for celebration, rather than rustication and disgrace.” More specifically, noting that his father’s being a lawyer “was not incidental to this narrative,” he wanted to construct a self “impervious to cross-examination.” Art made it permissible for him to live with uncertainty, and his studio provided “a safe space for stupidity.”
As a young man, even as he reluctantly surrendered to the internal imperative to pursue art as a career, Kentridge wondered whether he had “the right to be an artist.” With characteristic gravitas and a conceptualization of “art as a moral and philosophical calling,” he believed that to be an artist required “considerable self-examination and maturation.” That he came from a long line of illustrious lawyers added to the difficulty of choosing such a divergent path, especially one for which he felt undeserving and unqualified.
By the time Kentridge committed to a life of art, he had already earned an undergraduate degree in politics and African studies, had taken courses in art, including printmaking–which he eventually taught–and had spent time working in theater. Not quite ready to abandon acting for art, he spent a year in Paris studying mime and other theater arts, but quickly returned home to his first love, drawing.
Over the years, Kentridge has sought to understand both his desire to draw and the images that emerge from his charcoal-smudged hands (Fig. 4), but for the most part he simply surrenders to a process that starts with an impulse rather than a well-formed concept. He tracks his engagement with art to drawing lessons he took as a nine-year-old, where in answer to his teacher’s questions about what he wanted to draw and with what, his young self replied, “Landscape” and “Charcoal”–answers that a much older self still can’t explain.
Intuitive knowing has always characterized Kentridge’s studio practice, which begins with a desire to draw–usually joined by some vague notion of where he wants to go–and delivers meaning along the way. He’s learned that “…things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what [he] know[s],” and likens the act of drawing to a mode of thought with the potential to provide new insights on life.
When the impetus to draw fails to generate action, Kentridge often paces around his studio for many minutes or hours (Fig. 5), waiting for “…the disconnected ideas and images to pull together,” despite experience having taught him that “…images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action–the charcoal on paper, the ink in the book.” But still he’ll pace.
By allowing himself this “space for uncertainty,” Kentridge invites unconscious material onto the page–a byproduct of his process not entirely unknown to him. What else could he be describing when he observes that “…parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them–when we realized we always did know them.” That’s exactly what happened with one of the drawings he developed for his film Felix in Exile. To portray a body on the veld,
Kentridge used a police photograph for reference. Only much later did he recognize in his new picture the bloody bodies of the Sharpeville massacre victims that had shocked him as a child (Figs. 2 and 6). A memory he was sure had lost its power lay dormant until an event reminiscent of the original trauma called it back.
Most artists can’t avoid intrusion of the autobiographical into their work, though the extent of its presence varies depending on their artistic practices. While not deliberately drawing attention to himself, Kentridge usually discovers after the fact–and willingly shares it with his listeners–the ways in which his personal history has melded–in his art–with stories of Johannesburg and its inhabitants.
Although in the mid-1980s (when he resumed drawing with a passion) Kentridge was inspired by early French artists, later Impressionists, and more recent German Expressionists, he could not keep South Africa from insinuating itself into even these early graphic musings. In the right panel of his triptych The Boating Party (1985, Fig. 7)–a riff on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the flaming tire falling from above directly references the “burning necklaces” used by authorities (and others) to sadistically torture and kill Blacks (Fig. 8). In the center panel, the tabletop gallows from which hangs a noose requires no additional explanation.
Future favorites also made their debuts in these early explorations on paper. The nude man in the background who turns his back on the party-goers as he exits the scene (a la Velazquez’s Las Meninas) in the left panel of the three-paneled The Conservationists’ Ball (1985, Fig. 9) later became Kentridge’s never-clothed alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum. The binoculars displayed prominently on the table, in the middle panel, foregrounds Kentridge’s future preoccupation with instruments of sight, and leads the eye to the rhinoceros on a serving stand behind it. The hyena in the right panel further announces the African setting, as does the cheetah on the left.
Of art in the 1960s and 1970s, Kentridge recalled:
“Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America…seemed distant and incomprehensible to me..the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa. The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure…one had to look backwards…”
The unique case that was South Africa demanded its own brand of art. The boy in his grandfather’s car as it drove past a side street in Johannesburg, noticing a man lying in the gutter surrounded by four men kicking him in his body and head, had to “rearrange” his worldview to accommodate this new reality of adult violence. The same boy, a little older, flipping through that grandfather’s gift book of great-artists’ landscape paintings, had to reconcile the idyllic beauty reproduced in it with the “barbed-wire fences [and] hill with stones and thorns” he encountered on country-picnic outings with his family.
With his heart belonging to both dramatic and graphic arts, and perhaps feeling moved to merge them in the service of potentiating each, in 1988 Kentridge began creating Drawings for Projection, a fifteen-year project that concluded as 9 Drawings for Projection. Devoting time and energy to the graphic arts had never pulled this artist away from filmmaking and theater. Nor would work on his new long-term project mean there were not to be other animated films emerging from his studio during those years. Kentridge has always stayed busy.
Coming at the time that it did–during the last few years of apartheid and several more leading up to the first free elections and later establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 Drawings for Projection encapsulates the artist’s personal reflections on his country of birth, its immoral treatment of native Africans and its rapacious exploitation of its mineral resources. Throughout, Kentridge mulls over witnessing, memory, personal responsibility, love and forgiveness.
In the first film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), the artist introduced the dramatis personae for the series, one of which is the city itself (Figs. 10 and 11), about which Kentridge confessed,
“I have been unable to escape Johannesburg. The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other. And in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.”
Indeed, he is held as captive as Felix in Johannesburg (Fig. 12), simultaneously confounded and enthralled by a city the serendipity of birth made his. The oddness of this hometown rests partially on a vein of gold–the mining of which has left hills of pulverized stone dotting the land–and the need over a century ago to put to work a surfeit of dangerously unemployed soldiers. Kept occupied planting a million suburban trees, they created “the largest man-made forest in the world.”
From the first of these films until the last in 2003, Kentridge scattered much charcoal attempting to come to grips with an internal agitation that has never quite left him. He wrestled with the dilemma of time’s inevitable absorption of the years of apartheid horrors and in the end could find no respite from misery in the middle of an unrelenting AIDS epidemic.
Drawing on many years of visual material, including his own memories, Kentridge created Soho Eckstein (Fig. 13), only afterwards realizing–as is his way–that the unstoppable capitalist in a pin-striped suit had his origins in an old photograph of his paternal grandfather, sitting on a beach in full business attire. Kentridge’s name for this hard-hearted entrepreneur–Eckstein means “cornerstone” in German–alludes to the intractability of South Africa, just as does the rock he inserts intermittently throughout the series.
The businessman’s foil, Felix Teitlebaum (Fig. 12)–whose surname derives from a Yiddish/Germanic word for “date palm” and given name resembles that of the artist’s mother’s, Felicia (both associations inadvertent)–never acquires a wardrobe lest he get fixed in time by the specificity of fashion that a pin-striped suit somehow manages to avoid. While Soho’s driving passion is acquisition, that of Felix is love, though mostly experienced as reverie and longing.
At the outset, needing Felix to have the same consistency of appearance and personality that the far easier-to-stereotype Soho does, Kentridge turned to the mirror. With his dreamer taken from his own self-reflection, the draftsman–finding himself inextricably identified with his new character–“had to take responsibility for his actions,” a turn of events that enhanced the autobiographical potential of the film.
The action opens with lover boy already ensconced in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, a woman who never develops a name of her own as she moves in and then out of the illicit affair–and unfolds before the desolate Johannesburg landscape traversed by desperate Africans. Kentridge graphically contrasted the needy tenderness of Felix (Fig. 16) with the greedy hardness of Soho (Fig. 17), although the vulnerable cloak of nakedness worn by the former doesn’t stop him from besting his fully-suited rival in an old-fashioned fist fight.
The dark cloud of the violent reality of their milieu coalesces into a bookcase stacked with disembodied heads, overflowing onto the surrounding plain (Fig. 18). A composition originally explored in the etching Casspirs Full of Love (1989, Fig. 19), the subject alludes to the theme of callous impenetrability. Casspirs are mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that for decades were used to control the South African populace. “Casspirs full of love” was a radio greeting sent by parents to their servicemen sons during 1974 military operations protecting the country’s borders against the newly liberated Portuguese colonies next door. In the end, the bookcase and heads will disappear into the earth, leaving behind a ground unmarked by slaughter.
In Monument (1990), the next film in the series, Soho aggrandizes himself by unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to the black African worker. Bent under the weight of an outsized burden, a flesh-and-blood man petrifies into the statue (Fig. 20), but the stone of his artificially constructed being soon yields to an irresistible urge to raise his head against the weight, lift his swollen eyelids and confront the not-so-innocent bystander.
Sensitive to the history accruing around him, Kentridge embodied within his work–not always intentionally–the story of South Africa’s slowly evolving deliverance from the black hole of apartheid. Pivotal among the nine films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994) reflect the dramatic shifts effected by a 1989 change in the country’s administration, within a year of which freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In 1994 free elections were held for the first time.
The release dates of these two films roughly coincided with those developments, capturing Kentridge’s hope for, and adjustment to, a newly imaginable world. In Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), Felix and Mrs. Eckstein continue their affair against a backdrop of emboldened workers–chanting, carrying signs and parading through the bleak urban landscape. Soho–torturing himself with erotic fantasies of his errant wife with her lover, humanized in his longing for her, presides over a collapsing empire and cries aloud for his eloped wife to “come home.”
Early on in the film, Kentridge set a mining mountain and its barren location against the very modern cityscape of Johannesburg (Fig. 22), with its erect buildings in the background. Later, when Soho’s monument to capitalism dissolves into dust in a scene all too evocative of the still-to-happen demise of the World Trade Towers (Fig. 23), it leaves behind a ghost of imperfectly erased charcoal (Fig. 24), expressive of Kentridge’s consternation over the mind’s ability to normalize absence even in the presence of cataclysmic events.
Daring to conjure a new reality but still haunted by violent memories not so easily expunged, in Felix in Exile (1994) Kentridge conjures up Nandi, a land surveyor who uses a theodolite to bravely take the measure of her people’s losses. Alone in a room sparsely furnished with chair, desk, bed, sink and fly-surrounded light bulb hanging from the ceiling, artist Felix rifles through his stash of drawings (Fig. 25), a window into the activities of his new beloved, Nandi. Seeing through her eyes, quite literally in a mirror scene where each views the other from opposite ends of a double-sided scope, Felix must reckon now with the same carnage that she does (Fig. 26).
Through the power of animation, Kentridge transformed the remembered stills of the Sharpeville massacre into moving pictures of bodies bleeding on the veld. A seismograph attempts to record the earth’s convulsed reaction but the line remains flat even after a bullet finds Nandi (Fig. 27) and the ground absorbs all traces of her life and violent death. Throughout the film, a poignant native song cues the desired emotional response.
More redolent still of childhood memories of violence, History of the Main Complaint (1996) finds Soho in a hospital bed under intense internal scrutiny by doctors with their surveying instruments, and by his psyche through an eidetic nightmare that begins with a view through the windshield of a moving vehicle.
A pair of eyes visible in the rear-view mirror registers the sudden appearance of a Black man lying on the road ahead (Fig. 28), being kicked in the face by two assailants, then subjected to body blows with a stick (Fig. 29), then kicked again and again in the head and body, each strike recording red crosses on related x-rays of torso and skull. The latter of the two anatomical images soon morphs into Soho’s profile, glimpsed through the car window. When night falls, taking visibility with it, Soho’s car hits one of a number of figures that dart out in front of him. The sound of breaking glass wakes him with a start. Despite the return of these repressed memories, the hospital patient magically mends and returns to his desk to conduct business as usual, albeit with noticeably less frenzy.
No hint of Felix appears in the rest of the series as Soho becomes increasingly subdued, even self-reflective. In Stereoscope (1999), amid bright-blue-on-black representations of communication devices and networks, besieged by lists of numbers and reminiscences of brutality (Figs. 30, 31 and 32), Soho is sometimes seen in a split screen that Kentridge left to the viewer to combine into “a true representation of the world,” effectively avoiding the daunting task of integrating disparate aspects of himself.
In its own way chronicling the challenges faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film ends with a block-lettered, blue-on-black “give,” soon joined by its partner “for,” to finally form “forgive,” repeated several times in that order of word appearance (Fig. 33). In the end, Soho stands with eyes downcast and head bowed, watching water–a recurring motif in these films–cascade from first his breast pocket and then the others, till his sorrow floods the room and threatens to drown him (Fig. 34).
Tide Table (2003), the final film of the series, begins with pin-stripe-suited Soho, like Kentridge’s original reference photo for him, sitting on a beach (Fig. 35). Children watched by their women caregivers, play in the sand and cavort in the water to the strains of upbeat music. Within minutes, the tone darkens as these carefree activities come under the scrutiny of military men perched on the balconies of a nearby art deco resort, peering through binoculars. The scene switches to an overcrowded hospital ward–a medical setting in complete contrast to the spacious private room Soho occupied in the History of the Main Complaint.
For Kentridge, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa raised the question of “inappropriate mortality, of people dying very young…unnecessarily” because of “the inability of the society to deal with it.” In vignettes of sick and dying men, the artist conveyed the sorrow of survivors (Figs. 37 and 38) yet still found his way back to up-tempo, wistful shots of a boy playing on the rocks and in the sand, and Soho at the water’s edge, skimming stones across the swells. The film series ends as the tide takes with it memories of loved ones lost to AIDS, just as the land had consumed all traces of the country’s violent history.
Despite Kentridge’s expressed concern about the unreliability of memory and time’s inevitable dulling of initial shock and/or outrage (a clouding of clarity) in response to traumatic events, when realizing “some months or years later” the connection between the bodies he drew in Felix in Exile and the photographs of the Sharpeville massacre victims, he was “sure that, in a sense, it was trying to tame that horror of seeing those images.” In using the third person “it” rather than first person “I,” Kentridge unintentionally demonstrated the power of the unconscious to keep unbearable memories at a safe remove.
In this series of nine films, the adult artist deliberately and repeatedly affirmed memory’s inevitable erosion, using the natural behavior of land and water as visual metaphors for the process. But his child-artist self refused to abide by that precept, consistently ejecting onto the page violent memories that defiantly remained very much alive in the deep recesses of his brain, ready to be summoned by the slightest evocation of those original experiences.
Notes and references available upon request.
A special note of appreciation
for making the films available to the writer goes to:
Marian Goodman Gallery 
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel : 212-977-7160
William Kentridge’s art can be visited there.