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William Kentridge: a moralist, but a playful one

May 4, 2009


Scene from The Magic Flute with design and projection by Kentridge. Image from

Scene from The Magic Flute with design and projection by Kentridge. Image from

I’ve had my second visit to William Kentridge’s somewhat giant retrospective “Five Themes” at SFMOMA. Both grandiose and unassuming, comic and sublime, it’s all opera and processions and grand theater that always come back to drawing, slow and messy charcoal drawing. I’ll cover two of the five themes here.

Stills from the studio films. Image from

Stills from the studio films. Image from

I loved the way he went about visualizing himself in the studio (a series of short films dedicated to early filmmaker George Méliès), in the act of creation, with a mixture of gravitas, nostalgia, and silliness, using the visual jokes of early animation and silent film. The tape runs in reverse, and the artist plucks pages out of the air, catches books floating up from the ground, even repairs (and becomes) a torn charcoal self-portrait. In another, a coffee cup “jumps” out of the artist’s reach as he tries to pour into it. The coffee pot becomes a spaceship, landing the artist on a hostile planet. He asks us to play along with his grainy, gently slapstick humor, these unsophisticated, humble attempts to represent the creative process. It’s as if he says, “Look, I really don’t know how else to do this, so I’m just going to try, ok?” This is how we are: ambitious, imaginative, but always fumbling. 

After my first visit, when I tried to describe to a friend the mini-puppet-theater-animation pieces (Black Box; Preparing the Flute) that grew from Kentridge’s involvement in a restaging of The Magic Flute, he was confused by my calling them “operas.” I struggled to find another, better word, because that’s what they’re based on, and that’s what they really are: highly keyed and mannered dramas told with music and stagecraft. The pieces are elaborate miniature stages, with wings, lights, and double projections. Characters, built from discarded tools and studio detritus, move on tracks in motorized choreography. We see the brutal colonization of Namibia, a rhinocerous, a lamp, birds, the cosmos, the Enlightenment, drawings and historical images folded into the condensed little stage. It’s big. 

It’s so rare that sincere concern for others, and clear moral urgency, and personal history, and self-deprecating comedy come together. He is political, but obliquely so. He’s a philosopher, but an unashamedly physical one; he’s a moralist, but a playful one.

The work is deliberately crude and simple, but it insists on the sensation of touch, and of effort—of touching again and again with charcoal and eraser. It’s unusal in that it has no bling, no twist, no tagline. It’s sort of just human: moral, subtle, dark, hopeful, and compelling, and always being redrawn. It is so refreshingly earnest it makes one ache. And feel very happy. And sense that despite the smallness and awkwardness of things we might do, we have some good reasons for doing them. 

In other words I love and admire WK (and I didn’t even talk about the prints! and the animations! and The Nose!). So here are some links to reviews of the show: from the newspaper of record by Jori Finkel, from KQED by Kristen Farr, and from the SF Chronicle by Kenneth Baker; and a great profile in New York Magazine.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 6, 2010 9:51 pm

    Hi Becky!
    I accidentally found your site!
    Very interesting writings!!
    And thank you for including my name in your blog.

    How are you doing?
    Hope you are doing very well!

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