In a famous sequence of photographs, Henri Matisse documented, over the course of six months in 1935, twenty-two states of his evolving Large Reclining Nude. On impulse, I recently made photocopies of these and fastened them together as a kind of flipbook. This yielded a crude approximation to a cinematic experience in which the nude figure turned and twisted and fluttered her legs up and down, while parts of her body swelled and subsided. It was in fact quite sexy but did not seem quite to fit what Matisse spoke of, figuratively of course, as a motion picture film of the feeling of an artist. So I shifted into a sort of slow motion, and register the following tentative observation: In the first state, recorded on May 3, Matisse’s model is depicted in a fairly straightforward way, occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas. By September 6, her head has been disproportionately enlarged, and it has become a recognizable portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, his poseuse. On October 30, the head has grown disproportionately small, the features are schematic, the torso has grown lank and her bent arms fill the canvas from top to bottom. It really felt as if I had been able to track the artist’s feelings toward the model, who becomes for him an individualized woman about midway through the painting’s development. If so, the sequence does more than document the stages of a painting. It charts a transformation, from an external relationship between artist and model to an intimate relationship between man and woman. The motion picture film then yields something we could not easily get from the completed painting itself, marvelous as that great work is, and it shows something about the limitations of painting as a medium. Who knows if Matisse did not begin photographing his painting because he sensed there might be a deeper story to tell than the history of how a painting changes.
The artist’s emotional involvement with Lydia Delectorskaya has remained a Matisse family secret, but it is difficult to suppress the thought not only that a change of feeling toward her took place in the course of executing Large Reclining Nude but, more boldly, that Matisse used painting as a way of discovering what his feelings were. The South African artist William Kentridge speaks of drawing in almost these terms: “The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world. It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that can be detected judgment, ethics and morality…. So drawing is a slow motion version of thought…. The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning.” Note the cinematic metaphor through which Kentridge characterizes mental process and how, though his artistic ambitions otherwise resemble those of Matisse to no appreciable degree, he also sees drawing as an avenue to self-discovery.
South Africa was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1993 in acknowledgment of the repeal of apartheid; and in 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennale was organized as a gesture that South Africa was now part of the international art community. Kentridge himself exhibited in the Fourth Istanbul Biennale, held that same year, and ever since he has been widely shown and highly admired for his animated films, based on his drawings. But the drawings themselves have an independent authority, in large part, I believe, because of the palpable evidence they provide of their author’s search for meaning and even for personal meaning. It may seem curious that in work with so marked a political intention as Kentridge’s, there should be the same preoccupation with self-understanding that we find in Matisse, who seems almost flagrantly hedonistic as an artist. But upon reflection it is no less curious that someone who created for himself a world of luxe, calme, et volupté–to use an early title that Matisse appropriated from Baudelaire–should, at a somewhat advanced age, use painting as a method of self-analysis.
In point of style, Kentridge’s work has a certain retrospective aura, as if it belonged more to the era of Matisse than to the contemporary world. The drawings and, indeed, the animated films for which they serve as material feel much in spirit as if their provenance were the art world of Mitteleuropa from the early part of the twentieth century. Kentridge himself has commented on this:
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Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me…. The impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa. The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards–even if quaintness was the price one paid.
It is perhaps testimony to the deep pluralism of the contemporary art world that the language of early Modernism should be accepted and even admired as a vehicle for expression and exploration today. Kentridge is rightly considered a very important artist, which explains why he is the subject of a major exhibition at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art (until September 16). It will then travel to the MCA in Chicago, the CAM in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before its final venue in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, from December 7, 2002, through March 23, 2003.
Kentridge draws primarily in charcoal, a medium versatile enough to have been used in the achievement of the demi-teinte drawings prized by the beaux-arts academies of the nineteenth century, as well as in the broad expressive drawings of German Expressionism. Kentridge appreciates charcoal (enhanced by a sparing use of pastel) for its softness and quickness on paper. But with its sensitivity to pressure, to revision and overdrawing, to erasure and smudging, it lends itself particularly well to the kind of probing exploration for which Kentridge prizes drawing as an activity. The final result often stands as a kind of palimpsest of the stages of its emergence as an image. There is, moreover, an internal connection between drawing in charcoal and the exceedingly primitive technique of animation Kentridge evolved. One can photograph a drawing, then modify the drawing, then photograph that–and continue this process until one has transcribed, through sequences of smudging, erasing and overdrawing, a complete transition not just in the drawing, physically considered, but in what the alterations in the drawing sequentially depict. In short, the photographs taken at various stages of a drawing’s alteration literally become frames in a filmstrip that, when projected, show a change in the reality depicted. Animation enables Kentridge to get beyond the limits that Matisse circumvented by means of serial photography.
An example will make this clear. Consider a sequence of fourteen frames from Kentridge’s 1991 film, Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. Each of these is a photograph of the same drawing, as it has undergone a series of changes. In the first frame, we see a factory building in a somewhat dated modernesque style of architecture, drawn in a correspondingly dated Modernist style that Kentridge has made his own. The factory, sharply highlighted, stands against the sky, alone in a barren landscape. In the next frame, the artist has begun to scribble a sort of dark mass, like a dust cloud, at the building’s base. In the third frame, the artist has begun to erase, hence lighten, the top part of the cloud. This cloud grows larger and lighter through a number of frames. Meanwhile, he has begun to rub out the drawing of the building. The building grows fainter and fainter as the cloud engulfs it. Now the artist begins to erase the cloud so that there is a frame in which a ghostly pentimento of the building hovers over the thinning cloud. Finally, as the dust has settled, the artist has drawn the figure of a man standing in what remains of the cloud, his back to us, facing where the building used to be. In the final frame, the figure of the man is darkened. He stands alone before the traces on paper of an erased factory. As with Matisse’s Large Reclining Nude, where there is only one canvas, the changes in which have been documented by his photographs, here there is only one drawing, systematically modified. But where Large Reclining Nude shows no signs of the changes Matisse made, the final photograph in Kentridge’s sequence shows the stages it has gone through–the erasures, the scribbles, the darkening, the outlines of the factory that used to be there, the shape of the man who entered the picture only in the final stages of the drawing. It is like a face that bears the marks of its owner’s experience. “What is interesting about doing the animated films,” Kentridge told interviewers, “is that it’s a way of holding on to all the moments and possibilities of the drawing.” His drawings record the struggle to achieve them.
Put another way, the changes in Large Reclining Nude were not made for the sake of being photographed; the photographs merely document those changes. The changes in the drawing of the factory, by contrast, were narratively driven, and made for the sake of the photographs, because it is through them, as a film sequence, that a story is told. It is the story of a world falling apart. The figure in the drawing is internally related to the factory. He was in fact the factory’s owner, as we know from the film from which this sequence has been extracted. We have been shown the fact that his world has fallen apart, that he is left alone in the landscape in which his factory once stood. The figure is that of the industrialist Soho Eckstein, a character Kentridge invented–the star of his series of allegorical films, which he calls “Drawings for Projection,” of which Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old is the fourth.
Soho is an overweight, balding, ruthless man, with a heavy cigar and an emblematic pinstriped suit and striped necktie. The suit-and-tie is his attribute–as much so as keys are the attribute of St. Peter or a chalice of blood that of the bereaved Madonna in Christian iconography–or a silk hat and moneybags the attributes of The Capitalist in left-wing iconography. Soho is never shown not wearing it, whether working or sleeping, or lying in a hospital bed, or in a symbolic pool of water, embracing his alienated wife. In the first of the films in which he is introduced–Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris–Soho Eckstein is the embodiment of greed and rapacity. He has bought up half the city of Johannesburg, and sits at his desk, running his vast network of enterprises, or at a table swilling down mountains of food with bottle upon bottle of wine. Outside, we see an industrial wasteland, punctuated with pylons and floodlights, and traversed by the expropriated masses. In Monument, Soho addresses a crowd as a benefactor, at the dedication of a monument to the Working Man. In Mine–a wonderful pun, since the mine is mine–the film connects Soho with his mining enterprises. We see rows of miners blasting away in dark precincts, and we see Soho orchestrating their activity from a desk, on which are displayed pieces of African art as trophies. But things have begun to go very badly for Soho in Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. His empire has collapsed. He is alone in a world for whose barrenness he is largely accountable.
But the loss is more personal by far than my narrative thus far would suggest. Soho’s wife has been taken away from him by his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a moony artist who looks like a somewhat leaner Soho with his clothes off. Aside from these differences, Felix and Soho look much alike, which suggests that together they constitute a self-portrait of the artist, since he resembles them both. And that is another illustration of how drawing leads to self-knowledge.
As in the final frame of the collapsing factory, we see Soho alone against an empty sky–a mere smudged blankness onto which the artist has superimposed the words, printed in block letters:
And we find ourselves feeling sorry for poor Soho, a human being after all, with a broken heart.
Kentridge’s commentators see the films as filled with references to the political drama of South Africa, and doubtless the artist’s countrymen will be able to read these in terms far more local than are available to us who have not lived through the agonies of those struggles. At the same time, the films attain a level of allegory that makes them almost universal. Soho is an inspired invention, but he corresponds to the hard-nosed kind of industrialist commonplace in the representation of capitalism since at least the time of Marx and Engels. “I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose,” Marx wrote in his preface to Capital. But here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. Were it not for lettering in “Johannesburg”there would be no way of knowing that the masses represented in Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris were African blacks. The image could have been by Käthe Kollwitz or some illustrator for New Masses. There is thus something generic in the relationship between Soho and the country he exploits, into which the particularities of apartheid have to be read. But similarly, it is by virtue of romantic allegory that Soho’s guilt is internalized as insensitivity to his wife’s emotional needs. And where in South African political reality does the sensitive and artistic figure of Felix Teitlebaum exactly fit? In Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old, the political becomes the personal. There is a wonderful image in that film in which the essential triangle of Soho, Mrs. Eckstein and Felix is represented. Soho, holding a cigar that gives off the dense black smoke of one of his factory chimneys, is gazing into what I take to be a loudspeaker, while luscious Mrs. Eckstein lies beneath Felix, her eyes closed either in dream or rapture, while–in the animation–a kind of fish swims from Felix to her. It is exceedingly erotic, as the film itself at moments is, though it is difficult to know whether the love scenes are imagined by Soho or enacted by the couple, or, for that matter, imagined by them. In a way, Soho, Felix and Mrs. Eckstein–Tycoon, Artist and Wife–form as rich an allegorical triangle as Offissa Pupp, Ignatz and Krazy Kat in George Herriman’s inspired landscape. The films Kentridge made afterward are deeply introspective exercises in which both Soho and Felix undertake, in their different ways, to construct meanings for their lives. Mrs. Eckstein is not developed further.
I am very impressed by the way, as an artist, Kentridge seeks to reflect political problems through interpersonal relationships. In her instructive catalogue essay, Lynne Cooke cites Kentridge’s way of seeing his situation as an artist who is at once engaged and disengaged: “Aware of and drawing sustenance from the anomaly of my position.” At the edge of huge social upheavals, yet also removed from them. Not able to be part of these upheavals, nor to work as if they did not exist. That is the way I see his art–not part of the upheavals but to be understood through the fact that they exist and in some deflected way explain the art. In the end, if one thinks about it, this is the way artists have often dealt with political upheavals: at their edge, and in the framework of love stories. Think of Hemingway or Tolstoy or, if you like, Jane Austen or possibly Matisse.
The films are the heart of the exhibition, as they are the crown of Kentridge’s oeuvre, and I would head for them immediately. After that you can work your way back through the gallery, in which some of the stills–the drawings he used for the films–are on display. On your way in, you will have passed a sort of animated Shadow Procession, in which silhouetted figures, which inevitably remind one of the disturbing cutouts of the brilliant Kara Walker, sweep past your vision. It is a little soon to pronounce the show unforgettable, but I have not been able to erase from my memory the song by Alfred Makgalemele, which accompanies the Shadow Procession, and my feeling is that certain of the images will be with me for a very long time.