I saw my first Kentridge animated film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, consisting of charcoal hand drawings for projection, over a decade ago at the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh. The film so captivated me that I never forgot it and began, thereafter, to search out Kentridge’s work. It was hard to find.
Now, New York is experiencing a Kentridge moment: a major show at MoMA; and his first production as director and designer of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. We are fortunate to have this opportunity.
Kentridge, born in South Africa in 1955, came of age during the last decade of apartheid. He grew up in a distinguished, liberal, Jewish family, and once considered becoming a lawyer, like his parents. Instead, after pursuing degrees in politics, African studies and fine art, he devoted himself to theatre and spent a year in Paris studying mime.
As a long Profile in The New Yorker by Calvin Tompkins makes clear, in the 1980s, 34-year-old Kentridge, married and a father of two, “considered himself a failure at everything he had tried to do – painting, acting, commercial filmmaking.” The one thing he was good at was drawing, and though it took him a long time to find the key that brought together his wide-ranging interests and talents, once he stumbled upon the technique of stop-action animation of his charcoal drawings, his career took off.
The two main characters in the short film I saw — as well as nine other animated films in the MoMA show — are Soho Eckstein, business tycoon in a pin-striped suit, and his alter ego, Felix Teitelbaum, poet, dreamer, and lover of Eckstein’s wife.
Soho and Felix each look like a pot-bellied, middle-aged version of Kentridge. Not only do they seem to represent different aspects of his personality, but different aspects of pre-apartheid South Africa. The films, made without a script or storyboard, follow the lives of Soho and Felix. “Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old,” and “Tide Table, ” are among the many titles and themes in the series.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why his films are so powerful. They are deeply personal, deeply political, evoke economic and racial exploitation, and deal with primal emotions of greed, lust, power and, most recently, aging. But they are also about the process of creating art, about Kentridge pursuing his visual and thematic obsessions.
There is a stream-of-consciousness vitality to the drawings as they seem to explode from the hand and mind of the artist. Accompanied by pulsing music, his images and narratives rivet the viewer with their boiling urgency. His films, even when meditative, are brooding, mysterious, and evoke life lived at an intense pitch.
Kentridge’s films are only one part of the “Five Themes” in MoMA’s comprehensive survey of his career, which feature more than 120 works in a range of mediums – drawings, prints, theater models, books as well as films. For me, his suite of Soho-and-Felix narrations are his masterpieces, although his black-and-white “Shadow Procession,” comes in a close second.
“Artist in His Studio,” focuses on the almost sleight-of-hand process of Kentridge’s art making. His film, “Invisible Hand,” in which Kentriidge seems to be interacting with his creations, is a fascinating document.
The exhibition was organized by an independent curator. He worked closely with Kentridge, and for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art in Florida. However, at MoMA the exhibition has been expanded to include its large collection of Kentridge’s installations, films, drawings and prints.
It will probably be decades before we again have the opportunity of seeing so much of Kentridge’s work in one place. So take advantage of this moment and see for yourself his totally unique body of work.
William Kentridge: Five Themes
Through May 15