William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope (1998-99), charcoal, pastel and colored pencil on paper, 47-1/4″ x 63″; courtesy MOMA
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Included in the catalogue accompanying William Kentridge: Five Themes, an important if ultimately exasperating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is a DVD featuring preparatory studies for several of the artist’s animated films and theatrical projects. Admirers of Kentridge’s poetic indictments of racism, industrialization, and arrant capitalism will gain insight into a working process that is more meticulous than the finished pieces necessarily let on. This is to Kentridge’s credit. Given the resolutely handmade nature of his finest work—stop-motion films made from constantly worked and re-worked charcoal drawings—overt fussiness would only diminish its gritty, elusive spell. But the DVD also sheds light on Kentridge’s greatest liability: an aesthetic hubris that has, with increasing frequency, come to dominate a singular accomplishment.
It’s there to see on the DVD’s menu. The table of contents is placed against a white wall riddled with black smudges—it’s the artist’s studio. Shortly after the screen comes up, Kentridge—portly, balding, slump-shouldered, and possessed of distinctive bushy eyebrows—wanders in from stage left, stopping just short of the DVD’s text. He’s dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and black shoes: a costume as codified as Joseph Beuys’s safari gear or Andy Warhol’s platinum wig. Kentridge engages in low-key mugging; crossing his hands and feigning mild bewilderment, he comes across as an unkempt, middle-management Buster Keaton. It’s a cute moment, but it’s also clearly a star turn and, as such, off-putting in its presumed self-deprecation. Kentridge’s art has, based on the evidence at MOMA, increasingly become a means for self-congratulation. The DVD cameo is a small example of a disheartening tendency.
False modesty, after all, doesn’t become an artist who gained international renown for his moral center. Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge decided on a life of art, turning away from the “family business”—his parents had achieved national prominence as lawyers working against the policies of Apartheid. Kentridge studied and taught printmaking, but theater and mime classes taken during a year spent in Paris were pivotal. Upon returning to Johannesburg, Kentridge devoted himself to drawing, all the while harboring doubts about an artist’s cultural role, doubts engendered by self-consciousness about his race (white), ethnicity (Jewish), and the “rather desperate provincial city” he called home. In 1989, he created Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, the first of nine short films that took as their basis South Africa’s troubled social structure.
But don’t mistake the series, collectively titled 9 Drawings, as agitprop. Kentridge’s impetus and imagery are, admittedly, blatant: Soho Eckstein, the chief protagonist in the films, is the cliché of the cigar-chomping corporate fat cat; elsewhere, racial oppression and economic inequities are depicted with heartbreaking candor, patent outrage, and little room for interpretation. Kentridge’s draftsmanship, keyed to an encompassing black, is harsh and graphic, recalling Goya, Daumier, and Käthe Kollwitz. But the best analogy may be to the great German painter Max Beckmann.
Like Beckmann’s deeply astringent art, Kentridge’s work is anchored by portent that is beyond the realm of logical explanation, but not in the least bit Surrealistic. As a consequence, Kentridge’s stock characters and situations are interrupted, augmented, and, with astonishing stealth, redeemed by narrative and symbolic shifts of emphasis. The Eckstein character, for instance, turns out to be more multifaceted and sympathetic than one might expect. That Kentridge’s dreamlike elisions are as inevitable as they are inexplicable goes some way in explaining his stark and novel gift.
Kentridge’s art is, in fact, counterintuitive: political anger and philosophical suasion are sharpened by his embrace of mutability. Kentridge is, in his own allusive manner, an ideologue skeptical of ideology. The process by which he creates the films both makes blunt this attribute and renders it subtle. We watch as charcoal drawings transform themselves before our eyes, their smudgy range of tones fluttering, coalescing, and just as swiftly dissipating. Erasures morph into an oncoming tide; a ledger turns into a raging current. Diagrams become corporeal and a banker drowns in his own tears. Flesh—whether black, white, torn, beaten, or caressed—is rendered with breathtaking tenderness. (Kentridge is the rare contemporary artist capable of evoking sex as a coefficient of love.) The films are defiantly grubby and purposefully primitive. The manner in which they stutter and shift is reminiscent of the silent cinema—at MOMA, you can watch a Kentridge homage to the Meliès Brothers, whose roughhewn work is suited to his dour and pointed visions.
Drawing is the inescapable foundation of Kentridge’s artistry, but film provides it with lyricism and life. The actual works on paper are disappointing; without the camera providing momentum and fluidity, the images are lumpy and undistinguished. They are political cartoons rather than provocations imbued with grace—the relative intangibility of film is vital to Kentridge’s art. The work that follows upon 9 Drawings is more expressly physical and, not coincidentally, gimmicky. The method that informs Stereoscope (1998–1999), the finest installment of 9 Drawings, is diminished when put into the service of mechanized puppet shows, mini-dioramas, and multiscreen video installations. The latter suffer from being tech-heavy, over-orchestrated, and arty. The Dadaesque figurines featured in Black Box (2005) are compelling when static, but when they pirouette, run, and galumph they’re no more than wind-up contrivances. A puppet show favoring the puppet-master—or, at least, the computers he’s programmed—has its priorities in the wrong place.
Black Box is a meditation on colonialism—a natural subject for an artist who came of age during Apartheid. But the most remarkable thing about the piece is how unnatural, how forced and pedantic, it is. Kentridge is forever spelling things out for us; the same goes for I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine(2008), a mishmash denunciation of Stalin’s Russia, and the whimsical The Artist in the Studio (2003). Each is intermittently brilliant—Kentridge’s herky-jerky riffs on Constructivism are particularly delightful—but, on the whole, they’re programmatic and cluttered, all but self-defeating. You begin to realize how much at sea Kentridge has been since the fall of Apartheid. No wonder we see more and more of him in the drawings and films. Deprived of the historical circumstances under which he thrived as an artist, Kentridge indulges passions that are not immediately his own. He’s left only to celebrate his own cleverness. It’s a luxury to which Kentridge is entitled, I guess, but art and history (not to mention politics) benefit from less egotistical preening. 9 Drawings proves the point with brute and haunting elegance. The rest, however, is little more than an impressively convoluted and overambitious postscript.
© 2010 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 2010 edition of The New Criterion.