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Issue 23. Time and Photography / La Photographie et le temps

Visual storytelling: a Progressive Strategy? The Animated Drawings of William Kentridge

Author: Elisabeth Van Caelenberge
Published: November 2008

Abstract (E): This article analyses William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection as well as his recent installations. The author investigates the connection between their political and psychological subject matter and their specific style and medium. Guidelines are Buchloh’s denunciation of neo-expressionism and Deleuze’s theory of ‘faciality’. Kentridge’s art is thus studied from diverse perspectives, retrieving the innovative significance of his return to representation and his invention of a new medium.

Abstract (F): Cet article considère les Drawings for Projection de William Kentridge et ses récentes installations plastiques, en examinant le rapport entre la politico-psychologie de leurs sujets et leurs techniques. La dénonciation du néo-expressionisme par Buchloh et la théorie de la ‘visagéité’ de Deleuze sont la trame de cette analyse de l’art de Kentridge, révélant ainsi la signification de la reviviscence d’un art figuratif et l’invention d’un nouveau support.

keywords: William Kentridge, Benjamin Buchloh, Gilles Deleuze, politics, aesthetics, representation,  mediumspecificity.

To cite this article:

Van Caelenberghe, E., Visual storytelling: a Progressive Strategy? The Animated Drawings of William Kentridge. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 23 (2008).


The artistic context in which William Kentridge came to the fore as a visual artist about 1980 was all but simple. In Europe and the USA and as a reaction to the so-called ‘End of Painting’ as proclaimed for example in October in 1981, neo-expressionist art flourished. Soon, established critics like Benjamin Buchloh denounced this art as being commercial and politically conservative. Suspicion towards supposedly reactionary neo-expressionist painting increased, which re-infused art with political meaning.

At least in the Western world. Things were different in the periphery of the art world: in Kentridge’s South Africa, political reality was changing every day, making theoretical debates about art seem fairly remote. How then to interpret correctly William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection film series and its many loose formal borrowings from historical German expressionism, making his art resemble some neo-expressionist art? This ambiguous question will be the subject of this article.


Carolyn Bakargiev described the climate in which  Kentridge's work originated as one of contrast between Europe and Africa: ‘In South Africa, Kentridge received Conceptual Art as too cryptic, over-intellectualised and removed from the reality of human suffering. In Europe, by the late 1970s, Conceptualism had reached a form of solipsistic isolation from the audience, and a sense of the collapse of its utopian avant-gardism ushered in a reactionary return to tradition and romantic forms of regressive atelier painting with New painting and neo-Expressionism in the early 1980s.’ (Bakargiev 1998)

Perhaps one of the most vehement and well-constructed analyses of neo-expressionism was written by Benjamin Buchloh in ‘Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting’. I will closely read this text as a guideline for step-by-step approaching Kentridge’s work. A range of thematic, formal and stylistic analyses will demonstrate how similar aesthetic formulae can have an opposite meaning. Although Buchloh’s text is biased in approach, its lack of neutrality can be used to its advantage in measuring Kentridge’s work against it.





The (im)possibility of National Identity and Economy


In Kentridge's early work one encounters a fairly direct account of the political events in his country. Before the first democratic elections in 1994 his work is openly in favour of the repressed labourers, thus collaborating to the process of creating a new South African identity. Nevertheless, after the 1995 installation of the debated Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his Ubu Projects stress the difficulty of judgement. For Kentridge, creating a new South Africa has become complicated. He then liberates his artworks of the task of voicing direct political opinion. Buchloh has demonstrated exactly that the creation of national identity via art is problematical, because art gets interspersed with an ‘economic function’. (Buchloh 1981:61)
Economic motives are suspended  in Kentridge's works. Their saleability is secondary. For example,  Kentridge published five politically charged prints in the Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, his art thereby being spread widely and democratically. (Hickey 2007:137) (image 1)  The same democratic attitude is obvious in Kentridge's medium: he never produces dining room size painting for the private art market but rather films or installations for public viewing.



image 1 - L'Inesorabile Avanzata 1 (World Walking), 2007, sugarlift and drypoint on paper, 40 x 35 cm. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.



History as Private or Public Property


Buchloh is indignant about the way some neo-expressionist works deal with history. He describes how ‘a variety of production procedures and aesthetic categories, as well as the perceptual conventions that generated them, are now wrested from their original historical contexts and reassembled into a spectacle of availability. They postulate an experience of history as private property; their function is that of decorum.’ (Buchloh 1981:59)
Indeed, in Kentridge's work too the personal and the political sphere are intertwined. Examples can be found in Kentridge’s early films, like Sobriety, Obesity and growing Old: ‘These individual (commercial and private) crises for the hero are played out against the backdrop of an emerging collective struggle of the oppressed, as their capacity for collective agency is discovered.’ (Hickey 2007:162) (image 2)



image 2 - Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old, 1991, animated film, 16 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 8’ 22’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.


However, this complex mingling has been explained positively by Bakargiev: ‘It is the local nature of much of what Kentridge draws that allows the work to engage so intimately with viewers everywhere. It is the specifics of pain and the minutiae of the intimate lives depicted against the backdrop of events in South Africa that transform them into scenes that could be happening almost anywhere.’ (Bakargiev 2003:33) History is made recognisable to all viewers, but not as spectacle; therefore it is too painful.
This context explains Kentridge's response to Theodor Adorno that ‘Alas, there is lyric poetry’. (Bakargiev 2003:29) Whereas Adorno found that confronted with Holocaust horror it is best to remain silent or to stick to documenting, Kentridge dares to acknowledge art's right to flourish and even dull people's minds.
The depiction of bourgeois intimacy versus political violence is also a statement against yuppie art. Kentridge deems idyll a decadent goal for art in a world needing documentation of the cruel reality. Stereoscope for example shows two parallel but different images of Soho starting to diverge: one more internally lethargic, the other overtly violent. (image 3)



image 3 - Still from Stereoscope, 1999, animated film, 35 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 8’ 22’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.


Tom Gunning wrote: ‘Increasingly, the two images deviate from each other, not only refusing us the place of perfect convergence, but also imaging instead a schizoid world in which doubles confront each other with suspicion.’ (Gunning 2001:69)
An interesting addition to the problematic of personal versus public history in Kentridge's work has been made by Susan Stewart, who compares Kentridge's films to Greek tragedy. This link exists since Kentridge's roots in theatre. She writes: ‘Kentridge takes the central myth of romance in the West, the adultery plot, away from the margins of history and places it at its inception (…) this plot reminds us of the universal persistence of fantasy even in extreme conditions, a persistence just as necessary to the continuity of the self as memory is - and just as central to the feeling of being an individual who is alive in a world of individuals. Without such an imaginative narration, Kentridge's work would lose its capacity for tragedy on the level of the individual person.’ (Stewart 2001:87) Stewart's interpretation is interesting, although it has to be noted that narration is not central to Kentridge's art. Consequently, neither tragic catharsis is crucial. Indeed, Kentridge would deny the definitiveness implied in this concept. Rather, the confrontation of protagonists intensifies his work.





The Return of Figuration and Narrative


Parallel with neo-expressionism, Kentridge returned to figuration at the end of painting. He also offers a narrative, albeit a meagre and never-ending narrative with stock characters. Bakargiev writes about their innovative meaning: ‘Kentridge's choice of figuration as an avant-garde and radical practice ties into his acknowledgement of cultural amnesia. Rather than representation - which actually distances the viewer from experience by focusing on content and information, as it had done in pre-modernist practice and much conservative art of the 20th century - figuration and narrative became a way of relating the inner landscape (personal memory) with the outer landscape of social and political events at large.’ (Bakargiev 2003:33)

Kentridge's love for figurative art can be explained through his theatrical experiences with the human figure, and as a fascination with basic human willingness to surrender to visual illusions of reality. Kentridge: ‘This pleasure accompanying self-deception, seems to me to be fundamental in what it is to be a visual being.’ (Bakargiev 2003:159)



Faciality and Landscapity


But perhaps also in a Deleuzian vein. In 1980, contemporary with the rise of neo-expressionism, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote ‘Year Zero: Faciality’, a text in which the human face is analysed as a system consisting of ‘white wall/black hole’ (Deleuze 1988:167), based on the prototype of a drawing consisting of black marks on a white surface. As such, the face is a visual construction that came into being symbolically with Christ, the ultimate white man. This all-pervading system does not remain limited to the face but encompasses even the body, everyday objects and landscapes, in which case it is called ‘landscapity’. This system continues until today, supported by the ideologies of modern western society with its colonial and imperialist claims of superiority on other peoples. According to Deleuze and Guattari this ‘abstract machine of faciality’ (Deleuze 1988:168) belongs to bourgeois establishment. For this political reason, the authors want this inhuman system to be undone. It is described as a ‘deterritorialisation’ that has to be compensated for by a ‘reterritorialisation’. Indeed, face and landscape are much intertwined for Deleuze.

This is also true for Kentridge. Felix in Exile is a wonderful example of the close links between face and landscape, because it alternates close views of Felix’ face in a mirror with long views of the bare Johannesburg landscape. (image 4)


image 4 - Still from Felix in Exile, 1994, animated film, 35 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 8’ 43’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.


And there is more to say about faciality in Kentridge’s work. Kentridge's early artworks are ‘facialised’ in the sense that they precisely try to offer a face, a worthy portrait, to the otherwise repressed. Kentridge often works with degrees of faciality, ranging from the attribution of a face, to faceless portrayal in his later works. In order to get a clearer view of Kentridge’s handling of the face, Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of ‘faciality’ will be applied. Without losing awareness of the limited scope of such an undertaking, useful insights into this aspect of William Kentridge’s work can be gained.



The Face


Indeed, in the Drawings for Projection, Kentridge seems to find an enormous pleasure in drawing faces. The face as a portrait appeals to him enormously. The following citation clarifies his fascination for the face as the exquisite place for encountering the other as a subject instead of an object. Moreover, the artist’s recognition through eye contact resembles the religious contemplation of images of Christ. Both characteristics are very Deleuzian. Kentridge explains:

‘I disagree that all portrayals - the fact of portrayal - entails paternalism. It implies that all representations are equal - that one doesn’t have to look at them. In think Nandi is interesting in this regard. I struggled for a long time to find, not a form, but a persona for her. Victim yes. But she had to be more too. When she gained her theodolite and started drawing the landscape herself, she found her place in the film. Perhaps she could be a displaced self portrait - is this imperialism to the nth degree? Maybe, but it ceased to be a problem that interested me. I was then intrigued by my personal displacement towards her -the eyes looking at each other.’ (Bakargiev 1998:15)

Several elements from the Deleuze and Guattari text recur here. Communication takes places via the eyes (black holes in white surface) and is linked to landscapity through the geographical and political terms ‘displacement’ and ‘colonialism’.


This highly ‘facialised’ way of producing images would be considered conservative by Deleuze because it does not break radically with traditional representation; but Kentridge's force resides in the fact that he does not limit himself to only this way of image-making. He also produces images achieving a radical breach with traditional portrayal. Still in Felix in Exile, Felix shaves away his reflection in the mirror. The white, male face is done away with: Kentridge seems to realise the possibilities of defacing. This disappearance of faciality could be considered a Deleuzian ‘deterritorialisation’. The idea of territory and violence is developed when the film switches to dead bodies being absorbed into the soil: a form of landscapity. (image 5)


image 5 - Still from Felix in Exile, 1994, animated film, 35 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 8’ 43’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.


The problematic of identity via portrayal has been tackled by Ernst Van Alphen. For him, the creation of a portrait is typically bourgeois. The portrait is not only a reflection of the portrayed and his personality; it even creates it. It conveys authority onto a subject: ‘In the portrait (…) an individual is represented not as idealized, or in an incidental moment, but in “the essential quality of its true appearance”.’ (Van Alphen 1997 :101) Bourgeois culture needs portraits to maintain its superiority, a power mechanism Kentridge’s art questions.
Kentridge gradually deconstructs the Soho character throughout the Drawings for Projection. Indeed, when the spectator first meets Soho, this evil mine owner epitomises capitalism. Felix, a dreamy figure is his positive antagonist. But things change when Felix disappears from the series: Soho becomes more nuanced. Kentridge starts sympathising with him, visualised by making Soho’s face resemble Kentridge’s. This enables the spectator to identify with bourgeois Soho: his evildoings cannot simply be denounced.

Hesitating between tradition and innovation, Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection tentatively approach the complexity of figurative representation. A more recent project like Shadow Procession shows a procession of outlines of human figures, demonstrating how facelessness can free from the suffocation of rigid categorising.



The Landscape


As suggested by the Felix in Exile example above, landscape plays an important role for Kentridge. An obvious link with faciality is the notion of territory in Kentridge’s landscapes. Interestingly the artist visually problematises landscapes, bearing traces of the violence that occured in it. Referring to the victims of Apartheid, landscapity is more politically explicit than faciality. The novelatory way in which Kentridge portrays a landscape underlines this. Significantly, the artist renounces the picturesque and the sublime landscape because he finds both genres morally undefendable. Specifically the sublime landscape is problematical because in it, pain and danger make way for a sensation of delight. A delightful effect is precisely what Kentridge wants to avoid, as it paralyses the spectator’s capacity of action in reality. Kentridge prefers to preserve the painfulness of his images like Edmund Burke, theoriser of the sublime, wrote: ‘When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and they are simply terrible.’ Kentridge’s work is rather uncanny or Unheimlich, being ‘essentially a domesticated version of absolute terror.’ (Van Alphen 1997 :199) Ernst Van Alphen comes up with the example of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, which is ‘metaphorically described as a dead body. It is faceless and its eyes are vacant.’ (Van Alphen 1997 :197) In the uncanny, faciality, landscapity and death form a triad.





Art Historical References


Art historical references in art are suspicious to Buchloh when treated as ‘pastiche’, a strong term Buchloh has used when reproaching the neo-avant-garde to be ‘value-free art practice based on the end of the avant-garde and the simultaneous availability of all historical styles through pastiche or quotation.’ (Buchloh 1986:43) Buchloh warns for the ‘idealization of the perennial monuments of art history and its masters’ in order to ‘establish a new aesthetic orthodoxy’ (Buchloh 1981:43) in times of return to order. Buchloh argues that ‘the aesthetic attraction of these eclectic painting practices originates in a nostalgia for that moment of the past when the painting modes to which they refer had historical authenticity.’ (Buchloh 1981:60)

Kentridge often cites famous artists. Felix’ hotel room in Felix in Exile copies Vladimir Malevich’ room for the last futurist exhibition in 1915. (image 6)



image 6 - Vladimir Malevich, Room for the last Futurist Exhibition, 1915. Courtesy of  The Russian Museum Moscow.


But there are more references: Le Corbusier, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Italo Svevo, Georges Méliès… While studying in Paris, Kentridge fell in love with modernist art.
His work questions to what degree modernity is still a valid system. He combines a postcolonial attitude with a modernist style. This might seem paradoxical or anachronistic, but the artist remarks that Africa had never known modernism, so it could appeal intuitively to him even half a century later. Moreover, when taking a closer look at Kentridge’s sources, one notes a preference for rebellious art: Francesco Goya’s ‘Desastros de la Guerra’, Honoré Daumier’s caricatures, Man Ray and Malevich who sympathised with the Russian revolution, etc. Even when effectively referring to German expressionism, he prefers Neue Sachlichkeit painters like Max Beckmann. His borrowing is rather an affiliation with politically progressive tendencies in art history, than an affirmation of the ideological status quo.
Ida Gianelli formulates it well: ‘Kentridge's lyrical art marks a new course for contemporary art, a course that is neither forward-looking, nor returning to the past. His films and installations join traditional figuration and techniques with new media, Western art historical tradition with openness to the universe of story-telling and other aspects of contemporary culture as it has developed in Africa today.’ (Bakargiev 2003:9)



Nostalgia and Allegory


Closely tied to the issue of citation is the issue of nostalgia. For Buchloh, nostalgic art considering the past superior to the contemporary situation, is politically reactionary.
References to the past abound in Kentridge: there are plenty architectural details and objects referring to his childhood when Apartheid was fully operative. This could imply nostalgia for the ancient system, but clearly the artist criticises the violence accompanying it. Kentridge explains this love for the 1950s as simply childhood memories, moreover always combined with contemporary objects. In History of the Main Complaint hospital infrastructure seems to be at once recent (the brain scan) (image 7) and more than half a century old (the curtains and water basin).



image 7 - Still from History of the Main Complaint, 1996, animated film, 35 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 5’50’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.

For Buchloh, nostalgia is linked up to the practice of allegory. Others too warn against allegory and its repressive potential: ‘still, the allegorical supplement is not only an addition, but also a replacement. It takes the place of an earlier meaning, which is thereby either effaced or obscured. Because allegory usurps its object it comports within itself a danger, the possibility of perversion: that which is ‘merely appended’ to the work of art be mistaken for its ‘essence’.’ (Owens 1980a :84) When allegory imposes singular meaning onto an image it is a form of censorship.

Kentridge’s work is loaded with metaphors, the materials with which allegories are constructed. Craig Owens, criticising modernist art and making a plea for post-modernist difference, warns: ‘The projection of metaphor as metonymy is one of the fundamental stategies of allegory, and through it the symbolic is revealed for what it truly is – a rhetorical manipulation of metaphor which attempts to program response.’ (Owens 1980b:76) In Kentridge’s work however, metaphors are used independently, ensuring their multi-interpretability: together they do not form an allegory that can serve to explain the complete meaning of his work. On the contrary, Kentridge insists on an interpretative greyzone - on all levels.



Burlesque Figures


Burlesque figures like clowns and masked silhouettes are for Buchloh potentially problematic. For example, the clown in neo-expressionist art is ‘a masquerade of alienation from history, a return of the repressed in cultural costume.’ (Buchloh 1981:54) The presence of these characters in Kentridge’s work however can be explained through Kentridge’s theatrical career where disguised figures had always been evident. Moreover, his use of shadowy images is an artistic demonstration of his progressive politics. For example Shadow Procession, a 2003 installation depicting a burlesque procession of black-and-white human silhouettes, can be explained via a reading according to Plato’s cave allegory as a plea for the suspension of any definitive judgement. Faceless and shadowy images of reality have the philosophical advantage not to pretend sticking a definitive label onto its essence. Fluidity remains central. (image 8)



image 8 - Still from Shadow Procession, 1999, animated film, 35 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 7’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.





Buchloh’s denounces ‘the bourgeois concept of the avant-garde as the domain of the heroic male sublimation (...) as the ideological complement and cultural legitimation of social repression.’ (Buchloh 1981:57) Kentridge’s work is never guilty of such male-centeredness. Indeed, Kentridge's protagonists are male, with Mrs. Eckstein only having the minimal role of object of desire. But on the other hand there is Nandi, a black female figure, whose drawings map the cruelties of South Africa. She becomes a maker of meaning and breaks free from the conventional confines of the ‘silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not a maker of meaning.’ (Buchloh 1981:57) Clearly, Kentridge seeks for a male-female equilibrium. ‘From a feminist perspective, the self Kentridge projects is that of the ideal man of the future: shying away from any form of grand scheme, he keeps masculine power and the patriarchal gaze in constant check.’ (Bakargiev 2003:29) The question remains however to what extent he succeeds: the naked woman in Journey to the Moon has to fulfill the traditional function of artistic muse.





Buchloh denounces the master artist: ‘the atavistic notion of the master artist is reintroduced to continue a culture oriented to an esoteric elite, thus guaranteeing that elite’s right to continued cultural and political leadership.’ (Buchloh 1981:46)
Kentridge, somewhat like the neo-expressionists, makes himself visible in his artworks: in 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Kentridge films himself at work. (image 9)



image 9 - Still from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003, 16 mm and 35 mm film including live-action film and animated drawings, 17’ 30’’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.

But Kentridge is ambiguous about the notion of the master artist. This is clear from his dealing with alter egos. His ambiguous feelings toward his alter ego mine owner Soho are the consequence of his own whiteness in South Africa. Bakargiev writes: ‘Kentridge's dilemma is that he cannot make modernist paintings – that is, he cannot pursue the fiction of making South Africa look 'white' – yet he cannot speak for the 'black', nor provide a platform or voice for the 'other'. He can only explore a zone of uncertainty and shifting meanings.’ (Bakargiev 1998)
The power of Kentridge’s images is their openness to interpretation; the artist does not want to guide the reader and thus is no master artist. Doubleness and shifting meanings are inherent to the work. Kentridge recently confirmed: ‘All calls to certainty, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion - which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one's eyes open.’ (Bakargiev 2003:161)


Kentridge’s work can neither be called elitist. On the contrary, Kentridge has a democratic view on the arts. Of the aforementioned publication of some of his drawings in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 21 Ore in 2007, 700 000 copies were sold. This project demanded obviously the artist’s ability as a creator to let go of his own work. This implies that Kentridge does not support Walter Benjamin’s ‘auratic’ characteristics of art, like unicity and authenticity. That authorship is not fetishised, is also proven by Kentridge’s 1995 installation in the Johannesburg landscape called Memory and Geography, for which he collaborated with Doris Bloom. ‘Kentridge does not fetishise authorship, nor glorify notions of formal and stylistic quality in art. He finds collaboration with other artists rewarding precisely because he values content and dialogue over predefined form, ethics over the artist's touch.’ (Bakargiev 1998)





Poor and Rich Materials


Kentridge's artworks are always made of poor materials: he draws with charcoal on paper. The black-and-white of Kentridge's drawing is bare when compared to the abundance of neo-expressionist painting abounding with ‘expressivity’ and ‘sensuousness’, which ‘have again become criteria of aesthetic evaluation.’ (Buchloh 1981:56) Kentridge’s colourlessness on the contrary seems a conscious reduction of the western tradition. It also refers to early black-and-white cinema or to nineteenth century pamphlet art which Kentridge likes a lot. But black-and-white is also an adaptation of indigenous South African art. Kentridge is for example inspired by the regional artist Dumile. Thus Kentridge opts for the local rather than the international in art, which choice can be considered political because post-colonial. Finally, Kentridge's bare drawings of violence resemble early war photography. As Susan Sontag points out, colour in war photography came as a shock. In this sense, Kentridge can be regarded as a war photographer. Indeed, often Kentridge’s source material is doubly inspired: besides painterly images he uses documentary photographs.



Drawing and Peinture


Neither do his works possess ‘the gestural delineation, high contrast color, and heavy impasto’ that Buchloh ascribes to neo-expressionist art. In resisting this neo-expressionist characteristic, Kentridge refuses the notion of ‘peinture’: ‘the fetishized mode of artistic production’, (Buchloh 1981:58-59) because it is too high art. This means that Kentridge's work, for all its historical documentary value, cannot imply a return to history painting. It does not possess the unified message nor the visual monumentality required to be ideologically usable.
Also, the quickness and directness of his drawn medium improves its potential as a means of communication. It is not a coincidence that Kentridge's work balances between drawing/painting and cinema. Notably cinema, next to photography, was for Walter Benjamin the ideal medium to create ‘non auratic’ revolutionary artworks. Benjamin and Kentridge both admire Dziga Vertov’s films for being politically revolutionary; and both despise Hollywood cinema for its dulling capacities. Rosalind Krauss clarifies the mechanisms Kentridge uses to resist a viewing of his films as Hollywood animation; the simplest tactics being the primitivism of his drawn animation.
Krauss wrote specifically about Kentridge's Monument, which she considers inspired by Samuel Beckett’s play Catastrophe. (image 10)



image 10 - Still from Monument, 1989, animated film, 16 mm film, video and DVD transfer, 3’ 11’. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery New York.


Additionally Monument is certainly also based on a fragment of Charlie Chaplin's 1931 film City Lights.  I think it no coincidence that revolutionary Benjamin loved Charlie Chaplin. Both Monument and City Lights are thematically about revealing a bourgeois artwork, and formally brought into view similarly. Whereas in Chaplin the statue is ridiculed, in Kentridge the political act is even more threatening: the statue of the worker comes to life.





When interpreting Buchloh's text one should conclude that Kentridge’s work and its expressive style might seem at first sight neo-expressionist, but they turn out to have a contrary meaning. While in neo-expressionist circles ‘the mock avant-garde of contemporary European painters now benefits from the ignorance and arrogance of a racket of cultural parvenus who perceive it as their mission to reaffirm the politics of a rigid conservatism through cultural legitimation’ (Buchloh 1981:68), Kentridge subverts the expressionist idiom and applies it in a radically antagonistic way.

Indeed, Kentridge does not affirm any given system but emancipates from them. In order to oust this conviction, he has developed a specific aesthetic tactics. Kentridge does not want to simply voice political ideas. Bakargiev: ‘Emancipation is therefore both a theme in Kentridge's art and a principle underlying its form, media, technique, scale and experience.’ (Bakargiev 1998) Indeed, the political and the aesthetic are on all levels interwoven. Kentridge is a political artist in the subtlest sense of the word.

An effect of this subtlety is the reversibility of political and aesthetic in Kentridge's films. It is not simply artworks about politics, but hidden in the political meaning there resides an aesthetic program. In Monument, the revealing of a monument for the labourers is also a reflection on the legitimacy of making (political) art. Felix in Exile is a film with political subject matter (violence in South Africa) but implicitly it is about art (making drawings of the dead).

Therefore, it seems useful to undertake a reprise of the previous reflections on charcoal and cinema, but from an opposite standpoint: now the medium will be central.





Kentridge evidently is as much concerned with aesthetics as with politics. Sticking to a political Buchlohnian analysis of his films would be limiting. Kentridge's work is political but its origin resides in the pleasure of drawing, indeed almost like the neo-expressionist ‘sheer joy of painting’. Kentridge declares to be ‘interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings’ (Bakargiev 1998) Before the political storytelling Kentridge is interested in an aesthetic principle which is intrinsically subversive. For a complete appreciation, the specific aesthetic program Kentridge has developed has to be taken in account. Seeking for the theoretical implications of his technique can be done by focusing on the palimpsest, an omnipresent notion in literature about Kentridge.


Scholars compare Kentridge's drawn sheets of paper with a palimpsest: medieval parchment that has been written on several times, so that deciphering it implies reading all layers. When Kentridge makes drawings for his films, he does not continuously make new drawings, but he alters the few drawings he has made by erasing the charcoal lines an almost infinite number of times. As a consequence, all but the last image of one scene disappeared to make the continuation of the film possible. Nevertheless, traces of this process remain visible. This implies that on one level the represented narrative remains lingering, and on another level the past artistic gesture remains present.


Thus, tied to the notion of the palimpsest is the notion of facture. Seen Kentridge's revolutionary sympathies, tracing a parallel with the Russian Constructivist notion of Faktura, as discussed by Buchloh in his article ‘From Faktura to Faktography’, does not seem far-fetched. Faktura served to approach the artist to his material, and thus to the reality he lived in, almost as a way of gaining conscience of his specific political situation. Buchloh speaks of the ‘involvement of these artists with materials and objects in actual space and the social processes that occur within it. Faktura also meant (…) incorporating the technical means of construction into the work itself and linking them with existing standards of the development of the means of production in society at large.’ (Buchloh 1984:85)

Indeed, when confronted with the non-representational contemporary art and the proclaimed end of painting Kentridge responds by refusing reduction in art. Not unlike the Russian Constructivists, he works closely on the materiality of his artworks. Moreover, his primitive art, to which he refers as ‘stone age film making’, takes a stance against art that is not committing and devoid of references to reality. Art has to be connected to daily life.


Formulated Deleuzianly, the artist's sheet of paper can be considered intrinsically ‘facialised’ because of its black-and-whiteness. Being a form of faciality, the black-and-white contrast has to be erased, creating new possibilities out of the grey smudges left. By moving the image – through altering the drawing, but also cinematically - the existing code becomes replaced. On the creation of new meanings through changing the aspect of the surface, Deleuze and Guattari wrote: ‘intensity of deterritorialization must not be confused with speed of movement or development. (…) It can even be concluded from this that the least deterritorialized reterritorializes on the most deterritorialized.’ (Deleuze 1988:174)

New layers summon their place on the existing layers of meaning. The way this happens is not rational: Kentridge testifies that there is no narrative; the drawing itself produces images. Krauss agrees that Kentridge is ‘motivated by the desire to displace the focus on the general field of his activity from 'the rock' and its ideological imperatives to the work and its routines’. (Krauss 2005:101) For Kentridge ‘Fortuna’ is the physical way of creating the subsequent drawings that create the film, independent of political theory or preconceived narrative. Kentridge waits for images to call on him: ‘the concept of automatism is the mode of this resistance.’ (Krauss 2005:102)


The importance of the technique of palimpsest is related to the slowness of manual erasure: the passing of time is a necessary element in the realisation of the film’s potential to look at history. ‘The most obvious fact of drawing - that it unfolds in time and records that unfolding - acquires a profound significance here as a counter-narrative, an alternative speed, another opportunity to examine experience in a context where violence has obliterated the possibilities of perspective and hence made the view of history unbearable.’ (Stewart 2001:84)

The foregrounding of erasure invites its metaphorical interpretation, because of the general importance of metaphor in Kentridge’s work, and also as a consequence of the remarkable structural resemblance between allegory/metaphor and palimpsest, pointed at by Owens: ‘in allegorical structure, then, one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent or chaotic their relationship may be; the paradigm for the allegorical work is thus the palimpsest.’ (Owens 1980a:69)
Firstly, erasure can metaphorically represent the literal erasing of people by killing them and the erasing of events by forgetting them. The traces Kentridge's drawings leave behind are then to be understood as the need for memory. That memory is an important theme is clear from Monument, which is about not forgetting the sufferings of the labourers. Sometimes, Kentridge’s films are not about memory but rather about trauma. In History of the Main Complaint Soho has flashes of previous violence suddenly coming before his eyes. This film is a borderline case: it announces the late Soho films, where the protagonist tries to straighten out his past and reduce his trauma to bearable memory. That this process is not too effective is demonstrated by the sudden traumatic appearance of dead cows on a sunny beach in Tide Table.
The technique of erasure can also be understood as a theoretical reflection upon the artist’s own aesthetic act: Kentridge erases his drawing which is a form of annihilating artistic history to create a new form of art. The traces left testify of his acknowledging the art historical history, which was already evident in the multiple formal instances of art historical referencing.
When both previous reflections about society and art practice respectively, themed by the medium itself, become intertwined, Kentridge’s art displays its full potentiality. Kentridge’s large and ambitious drawings always end up being altered until vanished, just like the political situation in South Africa did not seem to get firm foothold. Kentridge’s suspension of the act of drawing bears witness to an impasse in political thinking.





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Buchloh, Benjamin. ‘From Faktura to Faktography’ October 30 (1984): 82-119.

Buchloh, Benjamin. ‘The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde’ October 37 (1986): 41-52

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and The Beautiful with Several Other Additions. ( consulted August 2008)

Christov Bakargiev, Carolyn. William Kentridge,, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998.

Christov Bakargiev, Carolyn. William Kentridge, exh. cat., Turin, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan, 2003.

Crimp, Douglas. ‘The End of Painting’ October 16 (1981): 69-86

Deleuze, Gilles, Felix Guattari. ‘Year Zero: Faciality’, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London, 1988.

Gunning, Tom. ‘Double Vision. Peering through Kentridge’s “Stereoscope”’ Parkett 63 (2001): 64-104

Hickey, Tom. William Kentridge. Fragile Identities. Brighton, 2007.

Krauss, Rosalind. ‘The Rock: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection’ The sharpest Point. Ottawa, 2005.

Owens, Craig. ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ October 12 (1980): 67-86

Owens, Craig.  ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism 2’ October 13 (1980): 58-80

Stewart, Susan. ‘A Messenger’ Parkett 63 (2001): 64-104

Van Alphen, Ernst. Caught by History. Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory. Stanford, 1997.


Elisabeth Van Caelenberge graduated in Germanic literature. Currently she is specialising in contemporary art at the art history departments of KULeuven and Université de Picardie. She has published about Wendy Morris’ charcoal animation, and works on an exhibition about Philippe Van Snick at the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography.



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