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'William Kentridge: Five Themes' -- A Must See Exhibit

Amid all of the exciting animation art exhibits now showing or about to premiere, Karl Cohen is most amazed by the Five Themes associated with William Kentridge.

William Kentridge, Self-Portrait (Testing the Library), 1998; Charcoal on paper; 26 x 20 in. (66 x 51 cm); Collection of Brenda Potter and Michael Sandler; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

While you probably agree that animation can be a great art form, only a few museums have honored animators and their works in the past, generally limiting the acknowledgments to special screenings and on really rare occasions they have also displaying several cels and drawings in a gallery. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has held wonderful premieres of work by John Canemaker, John and Faith Hubley, Ralph Bakshi, Michael Sporn and several other animators, but the only major gallery exhibits I can recall in well-known museums are shows of art from the Disney studio. Important shows have also been presented by several small galleries, including San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and at P.S. 1, an exciting art center in New York City.

Now, probably by coincidence, several museums are exhibiting or are about to open important animation shows: NY's Museum of Modern Art will hold a retrospective honoring Tim Burton (Nov. 22 to April 26, 2010), that will include more 700 works: drawings, paintings, storyboards, digital images, puppets, maquettes, props, costumes, ephemera, sketchbooks and severed-head props from Mars Attacks! The museum will also present 14 of his films and a series called "The Lurid Beauty of Monsters," films that influenced, inspired and intrigued Burton.

In Westchester County just North of NYC, animation directors Howard Beckerman and J. J. Sedelmaier curated It All Started Here at the Art Exchange (Jan. 18 - Feb. 28, 2009), a large exhibit (hundreds of pieces) honoring 103 years of animation production in the New York area. It began with a tribute to Winsor McCay, had art and artifacts from the studios that have existed in the area (Bray, Fleischer, Terrtoons, Famous, Blue Sky and many others) and it showed work by independent and commercial animators working today (George Griffin, John Canemaker, Michael Sporn, J.J. Sedelmaier, Jimmy Picker and many others). There were also lectures and numerous film screenings at the Jacob Burns Film Center and at other locations. Hopefully, the exhibit will be presented again in a museum in the city. Photographs of the exhibit can be seen on the internet.

In Canada the Montreal Museum of Fine Art is presenting Frederic Back: One with Nature (June 18 – Sept. 27). Back's name is not well known despite his winning two Oscars for remarkable works, Crac! (1981) and The Man Who Planted Trees (1987).

In England, the National Media Museum in Bradford will exhibit Drawings That Move, the Art of Joanna Quinn, from Oct.16 till the end of February 2010. There will be about 75 drawing displayed along with some of her awards and sketch books in display cases. Clips of her work will also be shown on monitors. Quinn has won dozens of major prizes (seven at Annecy, five at Zagreb, the grand prize at Ottawa in 2006, four BAFTA awards (the British Oscar), an Oscar nomination, two Emmy awards and many others.

As important and exciting as these shows are, there is another one touring the world that I consider one of the most remarkable art exhibits that I've ever seen.

William Kentridge, Invisible Mending (still), from 7 Fragments for Georges Melies, 2003; Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

William Kentridge: Five Themes The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently presented an enormous traveling art exhibit, William Kentridge: Five Themes. This was the first stop of a two-year journey across the globe to Jerusalem by way of NYC, Paris and other cities. Although Kentridge, an artist from South Africa, is not well known to most fans of animation, the show surprised almost everyone who saw it. I had no idea I would be seeing remarkable mature works of art that would include complex projected animated sets for major opera productions and memorable multi-image installation pieces. While I had seen two or three his films in the past and I was impressed with his innovative drawing techniques, I had no idea what was in store for me when I walked into the exhibit.

The man is brilliant. I was so impressed that I went back two more times to better understand and enjoy it. I also sent out an e-mail saying it is the most exciting art exhibit that I've seen in many years.

One reason the show is successful is its presentation. It overwhelms us. Several of the works take up entire rooms. One used nine projectors to fill the four walls with moving images, another uses eight, and other setups involve two miniature stages, animatronics and other unusual artistic concepts. I became immersed in his art. In the rooms with eight and nine projectors, if you lose interest in what is happening on one screen, just look to the left or right and watch something else happening. Seeing his work this way really is wonderful.

Think I'm gushing too much? The head of one animation studio and an animation teacher made more return visits to the exhibit than I did and a retired university professor told me, "The exhibition was great; hands down the best I've ever seen. He is such a supreme artist."

Kentridge's multi-image installations challenge the notion that film has to be seen in a conventional theater and that it should have a narrative story. In published interviews the artist says he isn't concerned with developing narratives. Instead he talks about his images having loose rather than specific meanings. He deals with themes rather than specific events. His pieces establish an aesthetic experience that relates to the theme of the work and the emotions he is exploring.

Kentridge's installations are designed so you have to turn around and move about to study them. To watch the hour-long presentation related to Mozart's Magic Flute, the audience stand or sit on boxes in the center of a long room so there is no front or back to them. Two of the audio-visual installations are at opposite ends of the room from each other and the third is against a sidewall of the gallery. The forth part of the piece requires you to stand in the next room to see his amazing projected and reflected illusions on a round tabletop.

William Kentridge, A Lifetime of Enthusiasm (stills), from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008; Collection of the artist; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

The Nose Each film installation in the show has a unique focus. I am not me, the Horse is not mine, 2008, is eight excerpts for a production of Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010. The artwork appears to be in the style of the Russian constructivist movement from the 1920s (the opera's world premiere was in Russia in 1930). What we see are fascinating images of a world quite different from ours. At the far end of the room we see a giant screen showing a parade of silhouette forms moving up a ramp. There are animated people constructed as articulated collages, real people dressed as workers, walking machines, the silhouette of Valdimir Tatlin's un-built tower (a proposed 400-meter high Monument to the Third International, c. 1919), and other somewhat unusual images. On the sidewalls one film shows a dancing figure that is collage constructed from printed pages. Another film shows an enormous nose with tiny legs and arms dancing. There is a film segment that shows the giant nose continuously climbing a ladder and then falling to the ground. Another film fragment refers to Nikolai Bukharin delivering testimony in 1937 before the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Excerpts of his speech become slogans that are flashed upon the wall, and there is animated artwork and historical footage included.

The images in the room are all in black-and-white, except for rare flashes of red. One image is the silhouette of a person waving an enormous red flag. None of the images in this room are easily comprehensible or necessarily logical. What the eight fragments mean is not the point of this work. The experience of being there makes this an exciting happening, even though it creates a somewhat dark, slightly oppressive atmosphere. That feeling comes from the room being dark, the only break from the black-and -white images are splashes of the politically charged color red, and none of the actions celebrate life. For people who know something about Russian history, the work hints at the suppression of the avant-garde movements in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and '30s. It can also be seen as a reference a broader picture, Stalin's mass purges of Soviet citizens. (An exhibit Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater that covers the suppression and elimination of the Jewish theater in the USSR is at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Sept. 7.)

While the work may appear to be random images, the artist carefully designed it and a computer controls it. Each 6-minute cycle of this presentation is the same and it repeats itself endlessly throughout the day. The work was shot on DVCAM and HDV.

Shostakovich's opera is based on The Nose, a short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836. It has inspired several other works of art including the wonderful pinscreen animated film of the same name by Alexander Alexeieff and Clair Parker, 1963.

William Kentridge, Untitled [Artist and Model Drawing], 2001; Collection of Heidi L. Steiger; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

Parcours d'Atelier: The Artist in the Studio Far removed from the heavy political undertones of I am not me, the horse is not mine, is Kentridge's nine-projection installation Parcours d'Atelier: The Artist in the Studio. It is assembled from three humorous films made in 2003 that explores film techniques similar to the trick films that French pioneer George Melies made over 100 years ago. Kentridge's three films Journey to the Moon (7 min.), 7 Fragments for George Melies (3+min.) and Day for Night (6.5 min.) are full of wonderful illusions/tricks. The works were shot on 16mm and 35mm film and later transferred to video.

The installation presents a wide range of cinematic tricks along with the animation technique that made Kentridge famous. In his first widely seen work, Johnannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, 1989, he drew a series of charcoal drawings on the same sheet of paper. He filmed each image on 16mm film and then erased sections that were moving. Then he drew the next image on the same sheet of paper. This method saves him time, as he doesn't have to redraw the non-moving sections (backgrounds, lower body parts if only the head is moving, etc.). As a result the only drawing existing from a sequence after it is completed is the final drawing. (The animator Blu from Italy used this technique to make his award-winning short Muto, 2008. He drew his animation in charcoal on walls and fences.)

From Seven Fragments there are several sequences where Kentridge stands next to his drawings and by using the magic of stop-motion photography he lets us believe that by just moving his hand over the paper he can make images appear, become animated and/or disappear. He sometimes combines his charcoal drawing technique with one that makes the images move backwards when they are projected. In one wonderful sequence of Seven Fragments he is seen catching torn fragments of a drawing and magically attaching them to the wall till a completed drawing appears. Of course there are no longer any tears in the paper. Then the image changes magically before our eyes, and eventually we see the sheet of paper void of any art. Finally the artist removes the paper from the wall and walks off with it. A few seconds later the cycle begins again.

Another delightful tribute to Melies shows the artist entering the studio and by reaching out into space. As he reaches out pieces of paper fly into his hand from out of nowhere. He carefully holds them in one hand while he conjures up more pieces of paper with the other. Then he starts catching books, both big and small. When the stack has become enormous and his arm can hold no more, he concludes his performance and the cycle begins again.

William Kentridge, His Majesty, the Nose (stills), from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008; Collection of the artist; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

An image found in many of Kentridge's films is a man falling from above. In this installation after the man climbs up a shaky wooden ladder and out of sight, the ladder turns into a carefully drawn one. You may not notice the switch from wood to charcoal. Then the animated ladder splinters, flies apart and the man falls from above. He walks off unhurt and the cycle begins again.

In Day for Night, Kentridge includes several sequences showing a field of moving stars. There are also strange drawn lines running through them, suggesting we are looking at some form of animated astronomical chart. What we are actually looking at is a high contrast negative image and those moving dots of light moving through a black sky are a tribute to the surrealist painter/filmmaker Salvador Dali. Yes, this is negative footage of ants.

In the same film an animated full moon rises in the night sky. Moon? Look closely and you will realize it is a ceramic saucer. In other sequences in both Day for Night and Journey to the Moon, he walks around with the cup's bottom pressed to his eye suggesting it is some sort of telescope. And when his rocket ship takes off for the moon it turns out to be a metal espresso coffeepot with angular sides.

One aspect I enjoy about Kentridge is that he doesn't treat his images as something that can't be changed and played with once they are in finished films. On the Internet different versions of images used in Seven Fragments can be seen. He has reedited the past into new forms to construct this version of The Artist in the Studio.

William Kentridge, Drawing for the opera The Magic Flute, 2004–5; Private collection, Ross, California; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

While designing multi-projection displays is a remarkable accomplishment, when Kentridge received the commission to develop "sets" for Mozart's Magic Flute from La Monnaie, the royal opera house of Belgium, he envisioned an even more complex presentation system. The Magic Flute project is divided into four works (2003-2007) that became more technically and artistically complex as the works progressed.

The first phase of his explorations resulted in Learning the Flute, 2003. His projection screen is a large gray classroom blackboard and his chalk is white light created by doing ink or charcoal animation on white paper and then projecting a high contrast negative image of it. The black lines become white against a solid black. He also projects complex drawings that include building facades. The drawings are accompanied by the overture to the Mozart opera. The 8-min. piece was shot on 35mm film.

Preparing the Flute, 2005, was created with a large-scale model of a theater stage. It was used to study different front and rear projection techniques and other design problems. The 8 or 9-foot wide proscenium stage is equipped with a main curtain, a rear projection screen, and a series of side curtains made of scrim material, a sheer fabric like nylon that allows images to be projected onto them and/or allows you to see what is behind the scrim if that area is well lit. There are also scrims covering the width of the stage that can be raised and lowered. In this study Kentridge treats us to a 21-minute long performance of music from the opera with a rich variety of constantly changing visuals. In it he used most of his techniques plus a few new tricks. Each aria is accompanied with different visuals. A computer controls the lighting, the front and rear projectors, the raising and lowering of scrims, etc.

One delightful sequence has him in silhouette conjuring up large animated birds. Some arias take place in front of imposing buildings; others have star-fields for backgrounds. My favorite set is what appears to be a fireworks display for the finale. This cascade of tiny particles was not created with explosives, but with fountains of water lit (and then processed electronically) so the drops sparkle in the light against a black background.

When the opera was performed in New York, The New York Times critic said, "Artist's video adds magic to Flute… The result is an exuberant dialogue between drawing and music, a three-dimensional work of art with video projected across and around the human figures onstage. Sometimes the animations echo the characters' thoughts; mathematical diagrams stand in for the teachings of Sarastro and his priests. Sometimes they reflect the music, with white lines reaching upward during a chorus, like fireworks… Mr. Kentridge's Magic Flute is based on the metaphor of the early camera, using the palette of a film negative, white on black, to reflect the opera's shifting presentation of good and evil."

In the New York Magazine article about the opera they also mention Kentridge's references to good and evil. It noted that in the Berlin production it was appropriate for him to include disturbing symbolic film footage of a white hunter shooting a rhinoceros. By the time the production had reached NYC the footage had been replaced with a dancing rhino that can stand upright and do handstands.

The archival footage of the hunter was not discarded; it reappears in Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005-'06, 22-minutes, his second miniature stage production. While The Magic Flute explores enlightenment, this work explores the darker side of life. Kentridge say the installation looks at "the damages of colonialism, which described its predations to itself as bringing enlightenment to the Dark Continent." He also says the work refers to the 1904-'07 rebellion and subsequent genocide of the Herero peoples of German SW Africa (now Namibia).

William Kentridge, Drawing for the opera The Magic Flute, 2004–5; Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

This production uses all that was learned in creating Preparing the Flute, plus it adds six mechanical animatronic figures that come into view at appropriate times. The figures are capable of moving in several ways and at times they appear to sing or to interact with the animation on the scrim behind them. Near the production's finale a character that looks something like a Luxo table lamp, interacts with a dancing rhino. The rhino manages to propel itself up and over the lamp at one point while doing a midair somersault. While that is going on the computer controlled lamp turns around and seems to watch the rhino's performance.

While the rhino's performance is whimsical, other imagery is quite disturbing included two animated figures smashing a human skull to bits. The soundtrack accompanying this 22-minute work includes recordings made in Namibia and music by Philip Miler, a composer Kentridge works with frequently.

The underlying theme of the evils of colonialism reappears in the forth and most unusual work in the exhibition. Kentridge says What Will Come (has already come), 2007, refers to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The work attracted large crowds, but it is not the animated horrors of the Fascist Italian soldiers (a biplane dropping bombs, Negroes hanging from trees, etc.) that fascinates; it is the unusual presentation of distorted looking animation. The video projector points straight down from the ceiling and projects distorted (warped or elongated) images onto a flat round projection screen (called a planar surface in the gallery label). These distorted images are hard to make out, but when viewed in the cylinder shaped mirror that is placed upright on the flat round tabletop screen, the images are reconstituted and appear normal. I can find no explanation on how he draws distorted images that will appear normal in the mirror, but this visual trick is a showstopper. The gallery label says the work suggests "the cyclical nature of history and its potential for distortion."

Drawing for the film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old [Soho and Mrs. Eckstein in Pool], 1991; Collection of the artist; © 2008 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

Other Works The Kentridge exhibit includes other themes that have engaged him over the past three decades. There is much more to see including over a dozen more animated films plus drawings, prints, sculptures, and books. The show in San Francisco filled about 10 extremely large galleries with high ceilings. Also, to make the exhibit more important, the artist presented lectures and evenings where his early opera work was performed.

The artist was born in 1955 and raised in South Africa. After graduating with a BA in politics and African studies he earning a diploma in fine arts. Then he traveled to Paris to study mime and theater. He worked with theater companies as a TV director and actor (1975 -'91). He began to establish his reputation as an artist around 1980 with series of etchings and monotypes. His first animated work dates from 1989. Since then he has had work shown in dozens of art galleries and museums around the world. It has been a long slow journey for Kentridge to get to the point where the long established art museums of the world are interested in honoring him with a major traveling retrospective.

Staging large traveling shows is an expensive undertaking due to fees the public is generally unaware of (framing works, building shipping crates, shipping fees, and the costs of insurance, publicity, printing, research and a lot of other charges). While museum can expect to make money and get tremendous amounts of publicity for blockbuster exhibits of King Tut treasurers or Van Gogh paintings, they are taking risks on less well-known artists, including Kentridge. Thankfully the Koret Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts and other sponsors helped to make this show possible.

The show is traveling to eight museums in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. After SF it went to the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas, July 11-Sept. 27, 2009. After that it will be seen at The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, Nov. 7-Jan. 17, 2010; The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Feb. 28 -May 17; the Jeu de Paume, Paris, July 5 - Sept. 26; the Albertina in Vienna, Oct. 30-Jan. 30, 2011; the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, March 5 -May 29 and the Stedejlijk Museum, Amsterdam, July 7-Oct. 2. Curators from the SF MOMA and the Norton Museum organized the exhibition. A large, well-illustrated book about the show with a DVD included is available.

It is quite possible that 2009 will be recognized as a turning point in animation history, the year major art museums finally honored animation as a great art form. I hope readers of this article will be able to see one or several of the shows mentioned.

Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.