Kentridge Analysis

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Analysis of Works

To analyse, or to read any of Kentridge’s works, you need to be familiar with his oeuvre, his metaphors and symbolism which serves like key to his personal alphabet. You will see the same metaphors and symbols repeated throughout his works, in different contexts, which are all placed in context of the South African History, within the framework of Johannesburg and his personal experiences of the events. Each mark is a trace and reference to things of the past – thus history. His individual artworks cannot be analysed in isolation, but must be seen in context of the rest of his works.  Kentridge’s prints are often starting points for further explorations in his other works.

The Conservationist Ball; Culling, Gamewatching, Taming,1985

His interest in in the triptych format was inspired by the work of Max Beckmann and Francis Bacon. The triptych format was ideal for his interest in story telling, the progression of time and social commentary.

This large triptych displays many of the features that distinguish William Kentridge as an artist.  It is primarily in symbolic black and white. His use of primarily black and white not only focus his work on the narrative of the images, but it also reflects the divisions in a social political environment as well as personal internal divisions of his subjects.

It also is not strictly a painting, though subtle elements of gouache is incorporated, which provides a minimal touch of colour to the predominantly black and grey imagery. But neither is it decisively a drawing. The ambiguity of technical procedure is a distinctive feature of Kentridge’s artistic personality and a link between his cinematic and pictorial work. This triptych also contains many of the metaphors and symbols that appears in his later animations.

Characteristically, he establish an evocative setting, an emotionally charged ambiance in which the scenario unfolds. In Culling and Gamewatching, the atmospheric space is a deep, receding interior. In the third panel, Taming, the setting is a claustrophobic deep, alley with steep sides of barricaded city walls, filled with wrecks of cars, creating a feeling of a post apocalyptic scenario.

The pictorial elements of the three scenes include recurrent Kentridge motifs and metaphors: men in evening dress, symbolic beasts like the rhino, cheetah and the hyena. Included in panel I is a camera and in panel II, binoculars, metaphors for the act of looking, which is a crucial motif in Kentridge’s art. Typically also, is his partial self-image, which is reflected in the mirrors of Panel I and II and on the billboard in Panel III. To Kentridge the incorporation of his own figure, is never simple self-portraiture, but a means whereby he acknowledges personal and collective responsibility. It is also a declaration of a preoccupation with the human condition that makes his work both social and general.

The characters in the Conservationist Ball are preoccupied and self-contained, connected to the world outside through their private drama only by the mirrored presence of the artist, the unobserved eavesdropper. In contrast the hyena in Panel III stares out accusingly and meets the viewer’s gaze head on.

The satirical substance of the title and subtitles is communicated in various subtle details of the scenes enacted, in iconographical allusions and in visual puns:

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656

Panel I, Culling, in which repeated echoes of Velazquez’s Las Meninas add overtones of secondary meaning is set in an artist’s studio. He uses a dramatic perspective, which adds to the feeling of intrigue and discomfort of the image. It depicts a moment in an enigmatic human drama, in which hypocrisy, infidelity and callousness each seems to play a role.

Panel II, Gamewatching, shows the careless pleasures of the Café Society, but puns on their diversions – the nature of the game, the trophies of the hunt.    The rhino is a symbol for Kentridge of an exploitative, colonialist view of Africa, a symbol for the subjugation of a continent stripped of its natural resources for European benefit.

Panel III, Taming, shows the outcome of panels I and II, and depicts a  commentary on the consequences of human folly. Its visual theme is a decaying city artery, clogged with the remnants of a reckless past. The only living creature of this unnatural habitat is a scavenging hyena – survivor and temporary monarch of the urban wilderness. The symbolism of hyenas in South Africa is associated with evil, dark spirits and mischief. It became a prominent symbol in Resistance art in South Africa, as symbols of repression and oppression, and often stand in for oppressive authorities.

Familiar with the social satire of William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose work he had emulated with his own parable of Industry and Idleness in 1986-7, Kentridge brought this treatment to the current South African situation, exposing the effects of ‘superior’ colonial culture on the landscape of South Africa which it has exploited, referred to in the Tamming, where the environment has been ‘tamed’ to become a desolate wasteland.

The Boating Party, 1985

In the charcoal and pastel triptych, “The Boating Party” (1985), Kentridge recalls the title of Pierre-Auguste Renoir‘s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) but the charm of the Impressionist Paris, has given way to Kentridge’s vision of a city in which the duality of man is exposed.

This triptych depicts a  Café situated in an outdoor pavilion and the scene suggests the ambience of upper class society. Details draws freely on impressionist art; well-dressed couples dance or are served by waiters, binoculars rest on tables, and numerous other details recall the  Café and theater scenes of Renoir and Dega. Just as Kentridge recently left Paris and returned to Johannesburg, when he created this work, the overlay of French Café  Society is swept aside in a flood of grotesque images, specific to South Africa.

The art historical implication of the title is immediately overridden by the rendering of the scenes. As opposed to the idyllic scene of Renoir, the scene has changed to one of horror. Amidst the revelry we see panting dogs and raw meat atop tables, and behind the back of the elegant woman a burning tyre falls, a clear reference to “necklacing” and the violent political situation in South Africa during that time.

The dinners still seem to be languid, at ease. In the first panel of the triptych, a woman with a particularly haughty expression clasps a warthog like a lapdog, but the waterhog which appears in the first panel is cut up and appears as a jelly in the third.

This contrast between the wealthy privileged lifestyle and the chaos and violence in the townships is further reflected in the use of charcoal and pastel and choice of colours. His use of soft pastels forms a stark contrast with the background violence and heightens the feeling of unease one feels when looking at the art work. His line drawing is also soft and flowing in the women but sharp and rough beyond the fences, in the dog and the burning tyre.

His use of charcoal as a medium with the minimal colour provided by pastels has a historical reference to the early 20th centuary where it was used as a medium of social comment by artists like, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz and South African Artist Dumile Feni. He however not only uses it for social commentary but also for its softness and quickness on paper. The black and white and shadows itself serves as a metaphorical comment on the divisions in society and the Jungian psychological concept of the shadow of the divided self, which he would explore further in his animated movies.

The angular composition is emphasized by the turquoise railing which also serves a device of continuity in throughout the three panels.

By borrowing historical art themes, Kentridge not only translated modern art and culture to South Africa, but also encapsulated his feelings concerning his troubled homeland under Apartheid and his mixed feelings about political art, resulting in ambiguity and contradictions.

Casspirs full of Love, 1989

Casspirs Full of Love, appears deceptively simple compared to the complexity and baroque – like compositions of his earlier triptychs. Neither does it have the depth of perspective of his earlier works. At face value it appears to be a still life depicting a vertical structure resembling a shelved box containing seven severed heads, reminding one of a cabinet of curiosities, or a shelf of heads in a museum waiting to be catalogued. Yet, like his other works, it is far from static and has multiple layers of meaning referring to Kentridge’s rejection of all forms of tyranny. To use one of Kentridge’s expressions; ‘”A whole blackboard of equations reduced to a single line.”

The drypoint intaglio was based on a poster-sized drawing Kentridge made in 1989, on the occasion of his solo exhibition. The title appears in sloping, cursive handwriting on the right side of the image running vertically from top to bottom. ‘What comfort now?’ is written in dots on the left side. Above the first rung-like horizontal partition of the box the words ‘not a step’ is written. The head at the top bears the number 1. The two heads in the narrow, top partition appear to have more western features than those below, which look African.

On the surface, this print refers ironically to the state of emergency prevailing in South Africa during the turbulent political and social climate of the late 1980s , when the revolt against the the Apartheid system was in full swing and the government was under pressure both from external and internal sources. Despite the state of emergency which gave the security forces broad powers to arrest and detain suspects at will, leading to many state-sanctioned murders, as well as banning the media from documenting the racial unrest, there was large scale social unrest and mass demonstrations. The MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe –  Spear of the Nation, military wing of the ANC ) also carried out some bombings of civilian, industrial and infrastructural sites during this time.

The title of this work refers to a radio message on a popular radio program for South African troops, in which a mother wished her son in the army on the South African border ‘a good tour of duty’ and ‘a safe return’: “This message comes from your mother, with Casspirs full of love.” Kentridge plays on that irony by forging the association between the heartfelt wishes and the cabinet full of decapitated heads, which refers to the duality that existed within South Africa.

Casspirs are armoured military vehicles; their name is an anagram of the abbreviations CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – the organization that developed them) and SAP (South African Police). The Casspirs were mainly used by the police force and were used first to protect its borders with Angola and Mozambique and later by the to quell riots and demonstrations in the black township communities in South Africa during states of emergency imposed by the apartheid government. The army used mainly Buffels.

The Casspir, became emblem of the violence, oppression and injustice of Apartheid, a way of repressing all hope and faith. In the left hand bottom corner is an outline of a hammer. The hammer symbolises destruction, and deconstruction; that which destroys certainty, embematic of the uncertainty and turbulence of the 80s in South Africa.

‘Casspirs’, were designed and built by the South African security forces. Police would fire shotgun rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas, or water cannon from them.

Kentridge captures the tension between the violence employed by the Casspirs and the message of love sent by friends and family to conscripts in the security forces; contradictions inherent in the apartheid state. This tension is echoed on an aesthetic level through the highly charged, textural surface of the print, contrasted with the soft cursive of the inscription.

Tension is also created through the compositional elements as the ladder like structure appears skew and off balance, so that the picture does not feel static, even though it depicts inanimate objects. This dynamic, rather than static feel of the etching is further emphasized by the scratchy aesthetic of his lines and the strong zig zag line to the left which echoes the diagonal slat in the center of the structure, where the severed heads seem to balance precariously causing  a feeling of discomfort with the viewer. The head in the center is surrounded by lines that gives the effect of of ripples in the water or a feeling of movement. The whole of the image has a feel of instability, reflecting the instability and turbulence of the times.

Through technique of drypoint that is based in drawing, and allows for revision, layering, looseness and speed of illustration, Kentridge  retains his characteristic scratchy, sketch aesthetic range of expressionistic mark making and the free, gestural effect of his smaller drawings and animations.

To Kentridge the technique itself alludes to the historical aspects associated with the medium. Intaglio has a history as a democratic, easily distributed medium.  Artists like Francisco Goya and Otto Dix used etching to satirize the powerful or to illustrate government related atrocities (Ref)

The obvious interpretation is that heads belongs to those killed in riots and demonstrations. The words ‘not a step’ both confirm and deny the ladder-reading of the image, urging us to look deeper. Kentridge’s metaphors are deliberately ambiguous and can be read on multiple levels and often refer not only to one event in time.  Heads in a shelf-like structure  in a desolate landscape, also appears in his movie “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris,” 1989. Here again the heads refer to those slain in revolt.  But why the shelf-like structure?

William Kentridge, “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris,” 1989. Production stills

Its meaning becomes clearer in Black Box / Chambre Noire which is Kentridge’s reflection on the history of  the 1904 German massacre of the Hereros in Southwest Africa (now Namibia). The heads of some of those killed were sent back to the Berlin Institute of Physical Anatomy, to be measured, catalogued for scientific research. An estimated 3,000 skulls were sent to Germany for experimentation. These heads were only recently returned, like Saartjie Baarman’s remains.

images from Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005

In the 1991 film Mine, there is also a scene where the miners sleeping on concrete  bunks are depicted to look like heads on a shelf, which in turn visually links to the well known diagram of slave ships.  It is also linked to the title sequence of Mine where a head ambiguously appears to look either like a miner’s head wearing a lamp, or a crowned antique Ife head from Nigeria . The head as icon therefore not only alludes to the victims of revolts against Colonist and Apartheid rule but also alludes to an exotic tourist or colonial view of Africa’s otherness. The structure in this context can then also allude to a cabinet of curiosities or a museum shelf.

Sequence from Mine 1991

Mine Shaft and Slave Ship, 1991

Opening frame from Mine – a miner’s head wearing a lamp or a crowned antique Ife head from Nigeria?

The Structure can also be linked to the slave ship diagram, illustrating the most economical way of transporting slaves, and the ladder like descend of the mine shaft, as a metaphor for the social-economical structure and conditions in South African and the colonial rule since 1900 and thereafter. It therefore not only refers to a specific incident or example but also the general principle on which a whole capitalist system was abused and maintained, with little or no concern for the social issues involved. (Ref)

Unlike Kentridge’s other animation films, Mine differs in that it presents a vertical cross-section of a mine. A lift carries the workers up the mining shift, out onto the land, which is metamorphosed into Soho’s bed. The film constantly shifts from below to above and vice versa to portray the contrasting surroundings and situations.

This vertical compositional element is also found in the composition of Casspirs full of love, where the ladder-like structure is both the center of the composition and focus, reminiscent of the vertical ascent or descent of Mine. The title is also written vertically, bringing more emphasises to the vertical structure. The structure further divides the composition between right and left side, reflecting the equivalent of the political separation in South Africa.

The vertical structure also suggests key themes of Kentridge’s work – that of memory and the irony of the Western World’s impulse to bring knowledge and light to the dark continent and its tragic consequences in the exploitation of Africa’s resources and its emphasis on the ‘otherness’ of Africans.

In much of the early literature on Africa the nature of the Europeans’ mission was described as the bearing of gifts of civilization, Christianity, peace, justice and good government to the natives. The four C’s – Commerce, Christianity, Civilization, Colonization – were deemed by many liberal-minded Europeans to provide the most effective recipe for the transformation and regeneration of Africa. (Ref)

The structure’s likeness to a cabinet of curiosity brings to mind the historical association of cabinets of curiosities as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosity, predecessors of modern museums, conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction. (Ref) This connection further strengthens Kentridge’s focus on the underlining causes of the situation in South Africa.

In Mine (also a play on mine as personal possession) when Soho depresses the coffeemaker’s plunger, he initiates a journey to the center of the earth: the plunger drills a deep shaft into the mine of the title, into the shadowed realm that underlies our doing, our thinking, our aspiring. Each stratum passed by the plunger is crowded with artifacts natural and unnatural, bodies and things once covered. (Ref) History has to be excavated to reveal the truth. We have to work at uncovering what we felt when we were first exposed to violence, because we become de-sensitised and memory fades with time.

For Kentridge ambiguity and irony is where reality, history,  memory and wishful thinking meets in a single point. What is on the surface is like a monument to a historical event of massacre – This event in the memory of – it does the remembering for us.

Although Kentridge draws on his perceptions of the South African experience, his expression of his themes is humanist and reflects issues beyond South Africa’s contemporary history. He communicates by means of metaphors. Casspirs full of Love illustrates Kentridge’s multiple layering of meaning especially well. On one hand it can be seen to depict those slain during the turbulent years of the 1980s but on the other hand it can be seen as a visual monument to all the deaths and suffering in the wake of Colonization and Apartheid. Unlike most Protest or Resistant Art of South Africa from the 80s, Kentridge draws his visual vocabulary not only from that period, but his work can be seen as a protest against all forms of oppression.

Footnote

Drypoint is a printmaking technique of the intaglio family, in which an image is incised into a plate (or “matrix”) with a hard-pointed “needle” of sharp metal or diamond point. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate,zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Like etching, drypoint is easier for an artist trained in drawing to master than engraving, as the technique of using the needle is closer to using a pencil than the engraver’s burin.

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