William Kentridge’s Frayed Vision at the MoMA

Retrospective Exhibition Presents “Five Themes” and Three Decades of the South African Artist


Published: April 15, 2010

“I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing—the contingent way that images arrive in the work—lies some kind of model of how we live our lives.” These words by South African artist William Kentridge are presented in bold type at the entrance to the MoMA’s current retrospective, “William Kentridge: Five Themes” and act as both his practical and ideological manifesto. The exhibition displays his brilliant work from the last 30 years; he hoped to reconcile the inherent chaos of his own artistic craftsmanship with the political turmoil of his life-long home, South Africa, confronting themes of totalitarianism and its bleak reality. Kentridge broke new ground experimenting with an array of mediums, including drawing, film, performance and theater, and the show seeks to accommodate all of them, consisting of five parts separated by theme, unified in approach.

The first, “Ubu and the Procession,” focuses on Kentridge’s most famed work, his bizarre, deeply affecting animated films centered around the violent, corrupt government official “Ubu.” Brutal in story and craft, 1999’s “Shadow Procession” brings to life a paranoid and uncertain Johannesburg following apartheid’s end in 1994. In haunting black and white, a silhouetted parade of people made from bits of black paper march to their own demise, as they are increasingly bound, surveilled and prodded with each successive procession. One by one, human heads transform into video cameras, bodies become loudspeakers, life is stamped out by state-sponsored paranoia. All the while, the innocent flies drop to a raucous, tinny soundtrack of clangs and klunks.

“The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world,” Kentridge said. Accordingly, his films present the process of drawing along with the drawings themselves.  Mere seconds are dedicated to a particular shot of his work before it is adjusted, torn and reassembled in an unrefined, brutal, stop-motion process. The hectic, archaic manner in which paper rips and charcoal smears in real time gives viewers a look at how the narrative is assembled, at the organic, reliant nature of art upon artist. As a result, his disturbing visuals spring to life with as much ease and jarring peculiarity as the intrusive political regimes they depict.

The next section of the exhibition, “Soho and Felix,” explores Kentridge’s alter egos, Soho Eckstein, a desperate businessman, and Felix Teitlebaum, Soho’s identical and sexually frustrated counterpart. Here, the two men, designed to look like the middle-aged artist, are presented both on film and in work taken directly from the film process.  Often nude, in overwhelming grey scenes of mental anguish and social decline, with only sparse flares of blue and red, the men act as a symbol of South Africans’ dehumanization and self-doubt. One charcoal and pastel drawing from Kentridge’s film “Stereoscope” depicts Soho hanging unconsciously from a rope of water, his body and the room surrounding him flooded, his life and death inseparable from his environment.  But the water is an optimistic blue, a refreshing dose of humanity in an otherwise drab landscape. In another sketch, 1998’s “Untitled (Man with Megaphone),” Felix stands naked with his head bowed down in reflection, as a massive megaphone stands threateningly facing him.  But there is no trace of blue to be found, just the unrelenting reality of Johannesburg’s big brother. Kentridge’s own hopelessness is injected into these scenes, though comic and absurdist touches provide an escape from social realities only possible for his animated personas.

“Artist in the Studio,” takes an even more intimate look at Kentridge’s artistic process through films and drawings depicting scenes from his life. 2002’s “Untitled” displays several drawings of his wife gradually entering a bath, like the pages of a flipbook. In this way, the viewer sees Kentridge’s wife and subject the way he did as he drew her. Neither the scene nor his wife is static; the perspective of artist and viewer is constantly changing. The scene, Kentridge said, is “intimate,” not “idealized.”

The final area of the exhibition explores Kentridge’s contribution to two operas, the Mozart-scored “The Magic Flute,” and the Russian opera, “The Nose.” The work surrounding “The Magic Flute,” which is set at the dawn of the Enlightenment, concerns many of the same themes that Kentridge had long held dear: the weight of oppression, the need for free thought.  However, “The Nose” and its related works show Kentridge moving into foreign territory. The absurd story about a man whose nose leaves him for a higher echelon of society, led Kentridge to the world of the Russian avant-garde and Constructivism, movements stamped out by Russian officials in the ’30s. 2007’s “News From Nowhere” merges many Kentridge touchstones, collage, use of newsprint, with these newly learned Russian principles: nonsensical forms, paramount importance on aesthetic value. Here, images and phrases with seemingly no common meaning form a dramatic, unified whole.

The exhibition is comprehensive but not overwhelming. While Kentridge has created an abundance of work during his career, the pieces are tastefully selected, the space stark and effecting. Because many of his pieces rely on one another in succession, or make use of atypical media like unbound book pages placed side by side, they are often given the proper arrangement in long horizontal segments. Kentridge’s films are projected on huge screens so his grotesque paper scrap figures are nearly life-size, and the speakers are cranked so loud that the booming scenes drown out the hustle of footsteps and chatter just outside.  Though Kentridge’s artwork builds on universally disturbing notions of the loss of identity and freedom, the rise of treachery and oppression, the horror of these themes is truly felt at the retrospective, surrounded by the paranoia and social unrest known so well by the artist. At the MoMa, visitors are there, in Kentridge’s Johannesburg, completely.