The films of William Kentridge make up a significant and absorbing part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s enthralling survey of recent work by the acclaimed South African artist, which opened March 14 and continues through May before embarking on a multi-city international tour. In fact, his animated narrative drawings are what originally drew international attention to Kentridge in the 1990s. A central part of the breadth of invention and media on display in William Kentridge: Five Themes, these film works (in four groupings, all featuring at least some animated dimension) represent culminating elements and interests along the path of a highly productive career, based (and, to a fair extent, rooted) in his home city of Johannesburg. Bridging the apartheid and post-apartheid eras, the films form a particularly dramatic gateway into the themes and concerns of an unrepentantly political artist, a white South African of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, on the move from the local to the universal.
As will be immediately apparent to any visitor to the exhibition, Kentridge is a supremely successful interdisciplinarian and synthesizer, versed in the graphic arts, theater and sculpture as well as film. Even the 75-plus pieces currently installed on the museum’s fourth floor can’t contain his full range, and a series of related events have accordingly been planned around the exhibit. These include the Bay Area premiere at Project Artaud of The Return of Ulysses, Kentridge’s multimedia staging of Monteverdi’s 17th-century Baroque opera; and his own lecture cum solo performance, I am not me, the horse is not mine, which purports to discuss his artistic process in light of his most recent operatic project (a forthcoming staging for the Met of Shostakovich’s The Nose, after the Gogol story), while playfully raising—with the help of props and video projections—serious questions about the historical-political possibilities and limits of absurdism.)
But among the best known pieces from Kentridge’s oeuvre are a series of highly labor-intensive animated short features, or filmed drawings, built around two iconic characters: a ruthless but quietly troubled industrialist and a romantic contemplator-dreamer respectively named Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. The nine Soho and Felix films—which together comprise one of the SFMOMA exhibit’s five thematic angles on its subject—begin with 1989’s Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris and end with 2003’s Tide Table. Evocatively, with use of occasional intertitles but no dialogue, and with something like the slow and deliberate unfolding of dreams (set to haunting and beautiful soundscapes punctuated by strains from Duke Ellington or the integral original scores of Kentridge collaborator Philip Miller), they contrast the distinct ways their characters approach and negotiate the social realities of Johannesburg in the final years of apartheid.
The films were made on an individual basis and only shown as a complete set in 2001, during retrospectives in New York and Chicago. From that point on, and in the SFMOMA exhibition, they have been grouped under the title *9 Drawings for Projection*—a term Kentridge prefers. Emphasizing the drawn line, his projections centrally employ a series of charcoal sketches, continually erased and redrawn in a meticulous stop-motion technique that carries strong thematic resonances—including such key Kentridge tropes as the fragile, ephemeral nature of life and civilization, and the artist’s hand in creating as well as responding to reality.
The first film or projection also introduces a third character, the neglected wife of Soho, known simply as Mrs. Eckstein, who becomes the lover of Felix before eventually returning to her forlorn husband. At that point (in the work entitled Felix in Exile, from 1994), Felix will begin a subtly involved relationship with a black woman, who also remains nameless but who acquires significant agency vis-à-vis her lover, indeed their mutual gaze (through telescopes, across either side of a bathroom mirror) is a central theme.
The other characters inthe series are anonymous black South Africans, a population of inhumanly abused workers and brutalized bodies. These figures—nameless prey of white supremacy and industrial regimentation—play a central role but also a complicated, somewhat fraught one given so much Western art and discourse (white, Eurocentric, predominantly male) offering to speak for and on behalf of the silent and silenced victims of capitalism, racism and colonialism. Still, there is an undeniable force, even authenticity to the figures (some of which are drawn directly from media images). Moreover, they are a crucial part of a landscape whose underlying power derives from its overwhelmingly personal, even autobiographical vantage, albeit one referenced indirectly in a complex fashion. (Both the title of the first film and its two male protagonists reportedly came to Kentridge in a dream, and he has referred to Soho and Felix, both of whom bear a striking resemblance to the artist, as two aspects of his own personality.)
"I am trying to capture the moral terrain in which there aren’t really any heroes, but there are victims," Kentridge has said. "A world in which compassion just isn’t enough."
But a basic description doesn’t prepare one for the moody and affecting power of the Soho and Felix films. Seen back-to-back, they suggest an arc of world historic forces undergirded by micro-social negotiations, on the one hand, and philosophical as well as profoundly personal introspection on the other, all of it oscillating between two poles: Felix the lover and idealist, naked as the day he was born, catering to the needs of Soho’s emotionally starved wife, listening to the sounds of unrest among the masses; Soho, meanwhile, the pinstriped, cigar-chomping magnate and "civic benefactor" whose bookcase comes filled with human heads as if they were Greek relics, whose French coffee press plunges through the breakfast table down into the depths of his mines past the living bodies entombed there, as through his grasping reach the world is transformed endlessly (much like the drawings themselves), statues raised and buildings razed, ad infinitum—or maybe not.
If this also sounds like a recycling of stock caricatures, it is intentionally just that, at least in part, as Kentridge adopts and adapts the lexicon of 20th century political art—especially his predecessors among the Weimar German and post-revolutionary Russian avant-gardes (referents and affinities echoing throughout the work on display at SFMOMA). The transposition and transformation of images is oneiric, mercurial and whimsical in nature but the symbolic meaning is rarely in any doubt. "I am interested in a political art," says Kentridge, "that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncomplicated gestures and uncertain endings." (Both Kentridge quotes appear in curator Mark Rosenthal’s introductory essay to SFMOMA’s impressive exhibition catalogue, which includes a DVD with excerpts, extracts, and raw and behind-the-scenes footage from the films, in addition to some earlier stop-motion shorts and the entirety of Tide Table.)
But while plumbing political art’s own history to make sense of its part and place in the present, the artist’s political commitments and questions are never far from an exploration of his own identity and process. And even Felix and Soho, while polar opposites, do not remain motionless but instead evolve with everything else, while sharing subtler qualities between them, including a basic frailty and lonesomeness.
The 9 Drawings for Film comprises only the beginning, chronologically, of the filmic pieces on display. The others are in some ways even more adventurous, while continuing and expanding themes raised here. Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) and Shadow Procession (1999) are both part of the thematic grouping titled Occasional and Residual Hope. 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003), arrayed around the viewer on four walls, forms a playfully immersive exploration of Kentridge’s artistic process that is simultaneously a sympathetic homage to the magic in Méliès’ own partly drawn cinematic fantasies.
There is also a filmic dimension to Kentridge’s ingenious and hauntingly beautiful mechanized maquettes, inspired by his 2005 staging in Belgium of Mozart’s Magic Flute (and grouped here with related drawings under the theme "Sarastro and the Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute"). The production of the opera offered Kentridge an ideal opportunity for exploring—with an at times Dada-esque humor and invention recalling Weimar-era artists like John Heartfield or George Grosz—a great modern theme long animating his work: the fact that the culmination of Enlightenment culture and progress is also the culmination of industrialization and colonialism. Here, he incorporates accordingly a visual subplot revolving around Germany’s genocidal war on Namibia’s Herero people.
This thematic section also includes What Will Come (has already come) (2007), an anamorphic film installation casting a distorted progression of drawn images down onto a steel tabletop, which are brought into more familiar focus and proportion on a reflective central cylinder. The twirling landscape (sometimes intentionally invoking a carousel) meanwhile morphs scenes of animals and machines, man-made wonders and disasters, in an endless loop.
Among undeniably sensual, psychological and existential reverberations, Kentridge’s film-based works offer a stimulating rethinking of the nature and practice of political art in the 21st century. One of the recurring characters across the work but especially in the breathtaking Shadow Procession, for instance, is a tripod with a camera atop (or sometimes a cat, another recurring character). It’s there recording, though not exactly in a stationary or impartial way, an endless parade of African exiles in profile, an exodus captured with a startlingly delicate physicality through use of hinged paper cutouts. The nod to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera seems plain, but it is more pointedly another auto-reference (made central and explicit in the later 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès) in which Kentridge places himself and his process inside the work and so puts himself up for consideration as image taker and maker: eye and artificer, witness and artist simultaneously. The move underscores, with characteristically lively humor and intelligence, the political nature of Kentridge’s project, its conscious wrestling with a call for an art of muscular political gestures in an age deeply wary of its possibility. In placing the camera-artist amid the procession, we get a gesture of solidarity and distance at once, an admission of a kind of inevitable historical complicity or contamination that nevertheless remains there, literally in line, for the long haul.
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