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William Kentridge

South African Animator, Theatre Designer, Performance Artist, & Sculptor

William Kentridge Photo
Movements and Styles: Video Art, Postmodernism

Born: April 1955 - Johannesburg, South Africa

"I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures an uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay."

Summary of William Kentridge

William Kentridge stands assured as an exciting visual artist, a profound philosopher, and a subtle symbol for peace. He always wears a crisp white shirt and quotes the angelic Reverend Desmond Tutu - a person with compassionate awareness of human fallibility from the self outwards - as one of his greatest influences. Born, raised, and still living today at the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge's identity is intrinsically bound within the complex history and injustices of his homeland. To say that he is primarily a political artist however is in many ways a misleading starting point from which to consider Kentridge's practice. As a human who cares deeply and one who is connected to his surroundings, current and contemporary happenings do appear in the artist's work and these can include incidents of violence, racial prejudice, and traces of the apartheid system.

Overall, Kentridge's tendencies towards poetic, philosophical, and theatrical ways of thinking are all stronger than any specific political mindset. Recurrent themes are timeless and universal; these include an interest in self, in relationships, in time, and in the cycle of life. Indeed Kentridge is so determined to mimic the "real" experience of being human that he moves fluidly between, and combines many different genres, of art. He uses drawing, printmaking, film, and performance and collages these different fragments of media together looking to achieve a more honest depiction of human experience than any sort of singular, linear, and tightly framed version of art. People are presented as uncertain, divided and chaotic, living in a world with much the same characteristics. Kentridge consistently well illustrates that any overarching view of life is likely non-sensical and impossible to follow, but interesting to consider all the same.

Key Ideas

As a characteristically philosophical artist, Kentridge constantly reflects on the unanswerable question of what it means to be human. Starting with rigorous personal interrogation - often in the form of self-portraits - he successfully gives insight to a shared human story and recognises the importance of returning to one's origins in order to do so. As such the artist uses basic charcoal as his primary medium and always holds onto the childhood impulse to draw.
Typically sombre and relatively dark in mood, Kentridge's work is rooted in the Expressionist tradition and recalls images by the likes of Käthe Kollwitz and Francis Bacon. For Kentridge however, the tragedy of the human condition, inevitably parading towards death, is often balanced by some aspect of humour. Indeed more and more in recent stage works, slapstick comedy becomes an important part of the artist's practice, comparable to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Kentridge quotes that he learnt more from his time studying mimic and mime in a Paris theatre school than he ever did at art school. He thus reveals his influence base to be extremely varied: moving between actors, artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, and spiritual teachers. He successfully combines all of these inspirations to reveal that he is interested in getting to the bare nuts and bolts of an idea, by whichever multi-media technique necessary.
Although highly intelligent, Kentridge is adamant that it is his body that leads his practice. He says that he always encourages "the hand to lead the brain", and that overall his work is a physical undertaking. Again this corresponds to the artist's love for theatre and movement on stage, but also to his lifelong interest in Dada, the group of German and French artists who successfully combined works on paper with dance and comedic action. Kentridge even sees his own studio as a sort of extension of his own body, comparing a walk across one part of the room to another as a similar journey from one synapse in the brain to another.
William Kentridge Photo

In a way, Kentridge transcends his own time. As art critic Jonathan Jones once said: “His melancholy carnival of an exhibition is the most convincing attempt I have seen by an artist of this century to meditate on the history of the last.”

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