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Review: William Kentridge: Five Themes


by Stephen Becker 28 Aug 2009

How can an artist incorporate all the nuances of life under an oppressive political regime? William Kentridge of South Africa begins with deceptively simple charcoal sketches. KERA commentator Matthew Bourbon reviews William Kentridge: Five Themes, a major retrospective of Kentridge’s work at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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"What Will Come," by William Kentridge

How can an artist incorporate all the nuances of life under an oppressive political regime? William Kentridge of South Africa begins with deceptively simple charcoal sketches. KERA commentator Matthew Bourbon reviews William Kentridge: Five Themes, a major retrospective of Kentridge’s work at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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William Kentridge is a prodigious draftsman. The acclaimed South African artist is mostly known for his animated films created from smudgy charcoal drawings. Using a basic stop-animation process, he films one drawing, erases it, redraws the original and then films the new picture.

Simple, perhaps, but the results are captivating.

No matter what larger subject Kentridge explores, his work always examines how power abuses victims. His early films focus on two archetypal protagonists. Soho represents unscrupulous and callous business practices, while Felix is Kentridge’s stand-in for artistic and romantic sentiments. Ironically, the characters are superficially the same – in fact their features are clearly those of the artist. With Soho and Felix, Kentridge seems to unravel his own relationship to living within the tyranny and violence of South African history. He envisions dreamlike stories that reflect both a malevolent society and a more personal and sympathetic point of view.

After the eventual collapse of apartheid, South Africans were encouraged to tell their stories, confess their crimes, and receive an official pardon from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Yet Kentridge’s work has continued to focus on political oppression. Throughout Five Themes, the notion of a corrupting and Kafkaesque power is the artist’s lodestar.

Many of the drawings and films in this exhibition are engrossing, but the ambitious work called “Black Box” stands out. In this riveting piece, Kentridge creates a form as complex as his subject. He starts by re-working Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. Building a miniature stage set that includes mechanical puppets, a series of painted scrims and the artist’s animated projections, “Black Box” feels like a culminating event in this retrospective show. The intensely sensory experience masterfully encapsulates the artist’s concerns about the dire consequences of colonialism in Africa, yet it also ventures into larger issues like the use of art or theater as a site to reveal the potential distortion of knowledge into zealotry.

Ultimately, however, Kentridge forges “Black Box”, and the entire exhibition, not just as a means to portray the cruelty of human behavior, but also to reveal the sometimes redemptive ability of art in the face of historical and personal upheavals.

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