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William Kentridge - 5 Themes

A grand show of early animation and current work by South African artist William Kentridge.

Still image from Stereoscope by William Kentridge. (Image courtesy of the MOMA.)

I caught up with the current William Kentridge show “5 Themes” at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibition originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art. From there it traveled to the MOMA in New York, and was hosted at several other major institutions before arriving here.

This is a huge and marvelous show. It covers all nine of Kentridge’s short animations in addition to current theatre, film, and artwork from 2000 on.

The drawn animations, or what he called “drawings for projection” interested me most. The earliest, “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris”, dates from 1989. The first frame was drawn on a large sheet of paper and the image was transformed for each succeeding frame by erasing and redrawing until the scene was complete. Kentridge himself says in a near one hour PBS interview, “Anything Is Possible”, (which I highly recommend for insight into his working method and thought process) that he worked without script or storyboard. He begins with the first image and builds from there.

The result is that these films are visually inventive and imaginative. The images hang together beautifully because the transition decisions appear to be based far more on graphic than narrative concerns.  As Kentridge says, “I make drawings; I don’t make ‘sense’.” (PBS interview "Anything Is Possible"). Transformation of the visuals consistently takes priority over story. While the short animations are thematically structured around day to day events in apartheid South Africa, the films really are about inventively transforming images.

The still images, of which there are several exhibited in the show, are beautiful drawings - very strong and with tremendous presence. Physically they range from 3 or 4 feet wide to at least 6 feet tall. Kentridge doesn’t play with the formal elements of drawing, but rather grounds the work in representation. He uses charcoal and pastel because they are so broad and rich in tonal value, and as he says in the PBS interview, they reproduce so well on film. And the erasable quality of the medium gives him the flexibility to rework the same image again and again for each succeeding frame.

His more current cinematic and theatrical work, which is the principal focus of the show, is wilder than the early work as he engages with a far more surreal graphic world. From a narrative perspective he moves from apartheid South Africa to engaging a broader range of international political conflicts. Projecting video and/or animation onto the wall, he records himself interacting directly with the imagery using stop-motion techniques. The curator calls this work more self-reflexive in that he actually plays a character role himself, but I think he's just expanding his media horizons and the possibilities for playfulness. There's nothing about his personal self in the work.

This powerful and engaging work is about the artist opening himself to possibilities, allowing his imagination free reign. It’s not an easy as it sounds.

More about the show can be found on the MOMA site. See also Karl Cohen's extensive review, also on AWN.