Kentridge Background

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William Kentridge

I was six years old and my father was one of the lawyers for the families who had been killed (in the Sharpeville massacre). I remember once coming into his study and seeing on his desk a large flat, yellow Kodak box, and lifting the lid of it – it looked like a  chocolate box. Inside were images of a woman with back blown off, someone with only half her head visible. – Kentridge

To William Kentridge the box became a perfect metaphor for South Africa’s recent history. As an artist and film-maker, his life and career have been spent constantly contemplating and re-examinig South Africa’s recent history; the light and darkness that are both outside and within it and the essential incompleteness of its victims and those who observe or engage in this victimization.

Tide Table, 2003/04

Kentridge was born in 1955 into a wealthy Johannesburg family, descendants of Jewish refugees from the purges and pogroms of Russia and Europe.  (The term “pogrom” became commonly used in English after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south-western Imperial Russia, present-day Ukraine and Poland, from 1881 to 1884.)  For generations the family had been deeply involved in politics and human rights issues in South Africa. Both his parents were lawyers, famous for their defense of victims of the apartheid.

My grandfather was a member of Parliament for 40 years. Obviously we’re talking here South Africa, a whites only parliament. I grew up in a family that was very involved with the legal battles against apartheid—the great treason trials in the 1950s and early ’60s, and later with the legal resources center that my mother founded. My father was involved with a number of very prominent cases that had political aspects to them, whether it was the inquest into the Sharpeville Massacre, the death of Steve Biko, or one of the trials of Nelson Mandela. — William Kentridge

From Felix in Exile, 1994

In 1976, he attained a degree in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand after which he studied art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation until 1978. There, he met Dumile Feni whose drawings had a major impact on Kentridge’s work.

By the mid-1970s Kentridge was making prints and drawings. In 1979, he created 20 to 30 monotypes, which became known as the “Pit” series. In 1980, he executed about 50 small-format etchings which he called the “Domestic Scenes”. These two groups of prints served to establish Kentridge’s artistic identity, an identity he has continued to develop in various media. Despite his ongoing exploration of non-traditional media, the foundation of his art has always been drawing and printmaking. (Ref)

Domestic Scenes, individual print of plate 3, the self-portrait of the artist on the sofa (1980). Mixed-method etching

Kentridge became involved in theatre by collaborating with the Junction Avenue Theatre Company and in 1979 he directed his first comedy entitled Will of Rebel based on the life of South African writer Breyten Breytenbach. He also worked as a set designer for film productions and taught design printing until he moved to Paris in 1981.

For three years Kentridge abandoned drawing to study mime and acting at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. In 1984 he went back to drawing and produced a series of large works on paper that showed the influence of his experience as an experimental filmmaker.

Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Siege, Art in a State of Hope, 1988, Silkscreen

Between 1989 and 2003 Kentridge made a series of nine short films that allegorize South Africa’s political upheavals, gathered under the title Drawings for Projection.

In 1992, he also began collaborating, as set designer, actor, and director of the Handspring Puppet Company. The Company created multi-media pieces using puppets, live actors and animation. It performed plays like WoyzeckFaust and King Ubu that reflect on colonialism, and human struggle between the past, modernity and ethics.
Throughout his career, William Kentridge has been involved in politics, fine art, theater, film, and television—moving beyond the specific political issues of South Africa to address the human condition, exposing the nature of memory, emotion, and social conflict. (Ref)

Here’s a short documentary on Kentridge; influences, themes, symbolism, metaphors and techniques of his work.

Part 1

Part 2

Throughout his work one can identify a variety of artistic influences, both from South African as well as from the European continent. Kentridge has always had an ambivalent relationship to the influence of European art and culture, focused by his own German, Jewish and Lithuanian roots. The influence of satirists,  who provided critical commentary on their times and its social issues, such as Honoré Daumier, Francisco Goya and William Hogarth is clear. He also often used European classical themes as frameworks for contemporary South African subjects. Kentridge’s fusion of Expressionism, art and theatre finds its context in the interests of South Africa’s Resistance Art movement of the 1980s. (Ref)

William Hogarth, Time smoking a picture, 1797

Honoré Daumier, NADAR elevating Photography to Art, 1862

Kentridge’s obsession with drawing began when he met Dumile Feni.

Dumile Feni, The stricken household 1965

Dumile Feni, Horses, 1967

Dumile made remarkably strong demonic drawings, either in ballpoint pen on a smaller scale, or in charcoal on a large scale. That was the first time that I understood the power of figurative, large scle drawings – that they could be so striking … He had the capacity to express things on a scale that I thought drawings could not achieve. He is the key local artist that influenced me. – Kentridge

Dumile’s pivotal impact on Kentridge contrasts strongly with his youthful disinterest with the conceptual and minimal European and American art of the 1960s and 1970s, and specially the paintings of the New York School with which Kentridge was familiar with. To Kentridge the abstract expressionism of that era appeared to be stuck in abstractionist silence, apolitical and self-indulgent.

Non-figurative work look so apolitical to me, that painting seemed an impossible – Kentridge

South African General (ca. 1991), large drypoint print.

Kentridge thus went back into art history and found inspiration in the early 20th century German expressionist work of Max BeckmannOtto DixKäthe KollwitzErnst Ludwig Kirchner and Georg Grosz, the early 20th century French art and the Soviet filmmakers and designers of propaganda posters.

Geaorg Grosz

No escape from the people’s revenge! – 1941

Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz also used charcoal as a medium for social comment. According to Kentridge, for example,  his character Soho has its origins in the images of industrialists from Russian and the early Futurist propaganda drawings, of George Grosz and German Expressionism.

You behave!

Francisco de Goya , The sleep of reason produces monsters, 1799

Kentridge’s 1979 series of monoprints entitled the ‘Pit’ shows the earliest references to Goya both in the intentional awkward poses that the actors assume, and in the shadowy observers.

Max Beckman, Departures, Triptych,c.1944

His interest in the triptych format was inspired by Max Beckman and Francis Bacon. Beckmann, whose work express the agonies of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century reinvented the triptych and expanded this archetype of medieval painting into a looking glass of contemporary humanity.

Francis Bacon, Triptych 1973

In the triptych Kentridge recognized the possibilities to express his interest in the concepts of time, space, memory and change.

Firstly you have a series of images of the same place, but each is different because that space is occupied by a different center piece each time. Time has passed between each image, objects have been rearranged and even the viewpoint has changed slightly. Secondly, and far more importantly, is the dislocation of space … You set up the continuity between images and then refuse to let it happen. Working with drawings also has to do with story telling … There is no necessary continuity between the images. – Kentridge

Through the work he did as an art director on other people’s movies he realised that he could construct a drawing on the same principles that you would to  design a film; not be constrained by the normal demands of naturalistic perspective, space or lighting.

Kentridge’s films evoke the late silent cinema of Russian and German Expressionism, most directly in the predominance of black and white, the absence of dialogue, and the use of intertitles.

From Other Faces, 2011

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