When the twenty-year-old William Kentridge told the art critic Clement Greenberg, who was visiting the Kentridge family home in Johannesburg in 1975, that he was interested in political art, Greenberg replied with typically pithy advice: “You take care of the art, and the politics will take care of itself.”
Kentridge’s art of the past four or so decades might at first appear to be given entirely to politics. His subjects include the horror and legacy of apartheid and of German colonialism in South West Africa, as well as, more recently, the migrant crisis. His charcoal drawings, many made for his animated films, are peppered with propagandistic slogans and unfold into atmospheric soundtracks. The recording of The Magic Flute that Kentridge uses for his film of rhinoceros-hunting in the miniature mechanical theater “Black Box / Chambre Noir” (2005) is from a concert recorded by Thomas Beecham in Berlin in 1938 – Hitler had attended a concert given by Beecham in Germany two years earlier. We watch as an animated rhinoceros vaults over a mechanical megaphone, a rough inscription nailing down the point of the sideshow: Trauerarbeit.
The largest room of this epic show at the Royal Academy is given over to five of Kentridge’s eleven Soho films, tracking the activities of the fictional Johannesburg mining magnate and property developer Soho Eckstein. The most recent, “City Deep” (2020), shows the Johannesburg Art Gallery crumbling around Eckstein as a Zama Zama miner (translated from Zulu as “try your luck” or “take a chance”, “zama zamais the name given to miners who illegally scavenge for gold in decommissioned mines) works away in a pit – the infamous City Deep mineshaft on which the gallery appears to have been built. The flickering charcoal image, painstakingly built up and then rubbed away, shows trees and shrubs growing over the spectral ruins of the gallery. Eckstein, who bears a passing resemblance to Kentridge, stands staring at paintings or leaning over a display case, seemingly lost in thought, as if reflecting on the error of his ways. In “Tide Table” (2003), the pinstripe-suited Eckstein reclines in a deckchair on the beach. Things emerge from the ocean, animated by rippling erasures of charcoal, among them a black bull, which is then hung up in a beach hut like the slaughtered ox of Rembrandt’s painting, the disparate images held together by music: the 1970s hit song “Likambo Ya Nganga”, by Franco and L’OK Jazz, and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s “Imimoya”.
Open-ended storyboard images and endless slogans and proverbs, some found, others concocted by Kentridge, are repeated across works, implying an endless state of questioning. Included here are two of the artist’s absorbing and comical Drawing Lesson films (he has made nineteen), in which he interviews and converses with himself, doubling as artist and critic. Kentridge has suggested that the critic is the internalized voice of his father, Sydney Kentridge, a prominent anti-apartheid lawyer in South Africa. This argumentive, questioning voice is the defining tone of his work – the pause of thoughtful doubt, the halting change in direction, the sudden eruption of a new idea that changes the pattern of the rest, as if Kentridge were arguing in a courtroom, bringing out by turns the urgency and the absurdity of political dogma.
It can be hard to turn from all this to the still images and make it without the ordering principles of animation and music. One gallery is hung with huge tapestries developed from collages of old maps overlaid with silhouetted images of boatloads of refugees. Woven in collaboration with the Stephens Tapestry Studio from mohair from angora goats farmed in the Eastern Cape, these tapestries overwhelm in their size and with the thought of the long months of labor involved in their creation. And yet they feel curiously static. Time is folded differently into the drawings taken from Kentridge’s animated films. These are at their most engaging when they show the between frames rather than the main action, the quieter, emptier moments, such as the bare hospital room from History of the Main Complaint (1996), in which the ghostly outline of a hospital bed can be seen through a privacy curtain.
A room of large ink drawings of flowers, roughly halfway through the exhibition, seems to signal a change of pace, a more lyrical spirit, although the relentless sloganizing continues apace. “Enough of this Scandal” reads a sign resting on a table in one drawing, a reproduction of van Gogh’s “The Sower” resting alongside. “Oh to Believe in Another World” reads a slogan next to what might be peonies in a jar. Another is titled “The Execution of Maximilian”, a reproduction of Manet’s painting lying next to a bouquet in a vase. Over ten feet tall, the flowers are transformed from polite decoration into something elegant and redemptive.
A large part of the success of the show at the RA is the impressive design by Kentridge’s long-time collaborator Sabine Theunissen. A sense of flow holds the attention right through to the final work – the film installation Waiting for the Sibylfirst staged in Rome in 2019, with music by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd (reviewed in the TLS, May 6, 2022). The Cumaean Sibyl, standing guard at the entrance to Hades, wrote answers to visitors’ questions about their fate on oak leaves, which were then swirled around by the wind so that nobody knew which answers applied to their questions. We approach Waiting for the Sybil via a selection of large ink drawings of trees from 2021, their branches filled with Kentridge’s ever-more-insistent slogans: “ONE TAKES ONE’S PAIN AND GROWS WITH IT”; “WHY DID I KEEP MY LIPS SEALED?”; “A SINGLE VOICE LOOKING FOR A CONVERSATION”; “YOU WILL BE DREAMT BY A JACKAL”; “UNHAPPEN, UNHAPPEN, UNHAPPEN.” In Waiting for the Sybil the accompanying score creates a sense of deep yet thoroughly ambiguous emotion, while the slogans are at once both profound and cryptic. (“Starve the Algorithm”, reads one, referring to Sibyl, the Google machine learning algorithm that can predict everything to sell us anything.) William Kentridge’s themes are now life and death, the great unanswerables. Politics, it seems, has been left far behind.
John-Paul Stonerard‘s book Creation: Art since the beginning will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS
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