Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 16, 2009
Mark Rosenthal, ed. William Kentridge: Five Themes Exh. cat. San Francisco, West Palm Beach, and New Haven: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Norton Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 264 pp.; 297 color ills. Cloth and DVD $50.00 (9780300150483)
Exhibition schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, March 14–May 31, 2009; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, July 11–September 27, 2009; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, November 7, 2009–January 17, 2010; Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 28–May 17, 2010; Albertina, Vienna, October 30, 2010–January 30, 2011; Israel Museum, Jerusalem, March 5–May 29, 2011; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, July 7–October 2, 2011
William Kentridge. Invisible Mending (still), from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003). 35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video, 1:20 min. Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. © 2008 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

So often our preliminary encounter with an exhibition sets our expectations and attitude about the work. This is particularly true for shows where that initial encounter occurs prior to actually seeing the art. My introduction to William Kentridge: Five Themes at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was very much influenced by hearing muffled music as I walked through the galleries of works on paper that were part of the exhibition’s first section, “Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio.” Haunting and somewhat melodramatic, the alluring sound (by Phillip Miller) materialized as accompaniment to Kentridge’s multi-screen installation, 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003). This experience was a strong point of entry into a journey of discovery of Kentridge’s life and world view, which he expresses through pointed commentary on difficult historical events via a blend of theatrical, filmic, and storytelling devices.

Part of the delight offered by this section of the exhibition was its sense of play and magic. Kentridge uses the genre of self-portraiture as a means to explore the cosmology of his life, becoming his own unabashed subject who dramatizes and portrays his creative versatility. He performs the roles of artist and director, magician and auteur, to whom papers fly to be caught, books zoom open to the right page, and who can, with complete ease, reassemble torn drawings or re-cup spilled coffee. Kentridge’s enactment of the invisible process that underlies the making of an artwork is an homage to Méliès, the early twentieth-century French film director and magician who often performed in front of painted sets and was known for his cinematic tricks. The simultaneous experience of watching different scenes unfold on the various screens—Kentridge becoming one of his drawings; his nude wife appearing behind him like a muse as he sits, contemplatively, in a chair (Journey to the Moon); and witnessing a rather surreal “drawing” made by ants as they crawl across a paper lined with sugar (Day for Night)—is a kind of meditation on the magical potential of the studio and the ways in which the artist can summon this onto paper and film.

For somewhat different reasons, the experience of magic also colored my initial encounter with Sarastro and the Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute (2003–7). Wandering into this gallery on opening night had the quality of entering a waiting room at a point of embarkation, with rows of people sitting and chatting on benches flanked by two puppet theaters. Taking a seat in this lively milieu, viewers were eventually rewarded by a dimming of lights and the appearance of Kentridge’s enchanting Learning the Flute (2003), in which projected images of charcoal drawings that initially appear on white paper transform into white chalk drawings projected onto a blackboard. This was followed by Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005), a foray into darker themes. Here Kentridge uses the structure of puppet theater as a means to create a political subtext to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, specifically, the colonial war of 1904 in German Southwest Africa and the genocide of the Herero people of Namibia. As Kentridge explains in the exhibition catalogue: “I wanted to look at the political unconscious of The Magic Flute—at the damages of colonialism which described its predations to itself as bringing enlightenment to the Dark Continent. . . . In Mozart’s opera music is enough to tame the wildest beasts, and a rhinoceros becomes a pet that dances on cue. Nature is benevolently calmed by music. In Black Box that rhinoceros, now captured on archival film, is hunted down (the destructive force of the same culture). These two moments of that distressing dialectic are the bookends of the project” (171).

The political dimension of this expansive work is central to other thematic areas of the exhibition: Thick Time: Soho and Felix, Occasional and Residual Hope: Ubu and the Procession, and Learning from the Absurd: The Nose. Each of these addresses certain facets of the sociopolitical history of modern and contemporary South Africa. While Soho and Felix and Ubu and the Procession use analogous visual tropes to address human rights abuses during South African apartheid, The Nose is based on an 1836 absurdist story by Nikolai Gogol, which was adapted by Dmitri Shostakovich for his opera of the same name. Set in czarist Russia, the story concerns an official—Major Kovalyov—whose nose disappears from his face, only to turn up as a higher-ranking official. The story centers on Kovalyov’s attempts to retrieve it, addressing the pettiness of hierarchical society and the complexities of navigating both public and private lives.

Kentridge’s installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, comprised of eight film fragments, is part of the developmental process for his production of The Nose, commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera for its 2010 season. Reflecting Kentridge’s ongoing interest in the foundation and trajectory of modernism, this work deals with Russia’s repressive response to modernism in the 1930s and, by extension, with global histories of the terrors of hierarchy and oppression. The preposterous roles the Nose plays—a head covering for the artist in his studio, the upper body and head of a ballerina, a swimmer who dives into a pool—are satiric counterpoints to the overriding theme of repression. The title, derived from a Russian peasant saying that denies guilt, is also signified with chilling fragments of testimony, projected on the wall, from Nicholas Bukharin—one of Lenin’s deputies—as presented to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in 1932 and 1938, as well as texts from Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who died in 1942 under Stalinist repression.

As strong as the experience of these works were on first encounter, subsequent viewings of the installations left me feeling somewhat flat. Although the power of Kentridge’s commentary did not change, the dazzle and delight offered by the theatricality and the surprise of hearing and seeing the work for the first time seemed to dissipate, an experience somewhat reminiscent of Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the mortal man who was the Wizard of Oz. This feeling has been slowly offset by reading through the excellent catalogue produced in conjunction with the exhibition, and noticing how Kentridge’s most persistent theme—the artist in the studio—is what ultimately and consistently resonates.

Terri Cohn
Writer, Curator, Independent Scholar