Theater of Existential Doubt: William Kentridge’s Courage to Be
Updated: Jul 29
A review of William Kentridge: See For yourself
The Warehouse Art Museum
1635 West St. Paul Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53233
July 8 – Dec. 16 2022
Newness is existential, not stylistic. Real style is not having a program – it’s how one behaves in a crisis. - Robert Hughes 1
The courage to be as oneself is the courage to make of oneself what one wants to be.
-Paul Tillich 2
Doubt is the necessary tool of knowledge -Paul Tillich 3
My job is to make art, not sense. -William Kentridge 4
There is so much expressive and critical power in the work of South African artist William Kentridge that I have a hard time knowing where to begin. I still remember the shock of the scene from his animated film Felix in Exile (1994) depicting South African Apartheid massacre victims covered over with newspapers and disintegrating with a thunderclap into wasted landscapes. Such a description hardly does justice to the ghostly power of his erased charcoal drawing technique accompanied by the elegiac tones of cello music and the crackling sound of thunderbolts as the bodies submerge into the soil. Then there was his Handspring Puppet Theater performance of Woyzeck on the Highveld (1994) - based on the 1836 by the German playwright Karl George Büchner. In one scene the hapless protagonist sets a dinner table for his cruel boss. Behind him a projected animation scene displays a blood red wine stain on the tablecloth that refuses to be wiped away. The abrupt shuttling of the dining implements are disturbing and unexpected as the stain grows ever larger with each swipe that tries to erase it.
Such unforgettable experiences explain my eagerness to review Kentridge’s retrospective at the Warehouse Art Museum, with works acquired by the Milwaukee-based couple Jan Serr and John Shannon. The exhibit has 100 objects - - - works on paper, and media presentations on display - including prints, drawings, animated films, stereoscopes, constructivist sculptures, teacups, and books. There are several anamorphic drawings on circular discs of paper reflected on cylindrical mirrors, correcting the drawing’s grotesque distortions in miniature form. A number of recent large prints portray stateless refugees trapped in a small boat or longing to reach the safety of the southern coast of Sicily. A long folding book Portage (2000) depicts the artist’s characteristic parade of black silhouetted figures made from cut paper, lifting bundles and bricolage as they rhythmically transport themselves across the pages in a kind of shadow dance. The several animated films that are part of the exhibit include an inventively lyrical short based on Papageno’s bird catching song from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (2005) and a lengthier animation Second-Hand Reading (2013).
Kentridge’s lexicon of symbolic objects possess a subconscious associative power that is both expressive and surreal. They often reflect an irrational, sometimes absurdist humor as meditations on violence and injustice in current and past human history. Kentridge’s teacups evoke a quaint Victorian domesticity that ends up expressing a contradictory strangeness. A silver coated set of 6 Demi-tasse Cups and Saucers (2008) become hallucinatory mirrors – small anamorphic displays - for grotesqueries painted on their accompanying saucers. Throughout the exhibit typewriters, telephones, adding machines, powerlines and cranes - symbols of business, industry and construction - intervene as emblems of ominous activities that thwart human existence and feeling.
Kentridge’s art is a personal meditation born of his life experiences growing up in South Africa under apartheid, becoming a larger reflection of the tragedy and irrationality of human nature and history in a more universal sense. Kentridge was born in 1955 into a wealthy Johannesburg family, descended from Jewish refugees of the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe that occurred in the late 19th century. For generations the family had been deeply committed to human rights issues, including both his parents who were lawyers. Kentridge’s father was a lawyer defending the victims of the 1960 Sharpsville massacre. The artist recalls an important incident that happened when he was 6 years old visiting his father’s study.
I remember once coming into his study and seeing on his desk - a large flat yellow Kodak box, and lifting the lid off of it – it looked like a chocolate box. Inside were images of a woman with her back blown off, someone with only half her head visible. 5
The shock had its impact as a traumatic memory that opened up questions on the nature of reality, propaganda, power, and suffering.
The exhibit opens with a comprehensive display of Kentridge’s linocut, silkscreen and etching/intaglio prints. The right panel of the silkscreen tryptic Art in a State of Grace, Hope, Siege (1988) depicts the diabolically wrinkled face of a double chinned cigar smoking businessman. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the ham-fisted Weimar industrialist from Georg Grosz’s 1922 print series Die Räuber (The Robbers). Both revel with excoriating irony on the sociopathic nature of greed. The same can be said about Kentridge’s etchings in 6 Domestic Scenes (1980) where wealthy whites loll in decadent domestic luxury as they make overbearing demands of their black servants. His print series Industry and Idleness (1986), inspired by William Hogarth’s 1747 print series of the same name, features several flabby-jowelled obese, men in pinstriped suits, clearly set on courses of self-destruction through the acquisition of power and wealth. The Little Morals (1991) print series has some of the most compelling and symbolically excoriating imagery in the entire exhibit. Practical Considerations portrays a businessman reveling with his nude female partner as he indifferently witnesses a black laborer nearly crushed by a massive load he carries on his back. Reserve Army depicts black bodyless bandaged heads, one wearing a miner’s helmet, that are surrealistically scattered like eggs over a wasted landscape or stacked on a set of shelves. Kentridge uses a similar image in the final scene from his 1989 animated film Johannesburg, the Greatest City After Paris.
Kentridge has often talked at length aboiut his influences from early 20th century Modernist precursors, including German Exrpessionist/Dadaist artists of the Wiemar era era Georg Grosz and Otto Dix. He is alos inspired by the Russian avant-garde artists of the revolutionary era from a centrury ago, such as poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the visula artists Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko who innovated the experamental forms of Suprematist and Constructivist art. The European Dadaist’s subversive and reactionary art against Europe’s decadent crumbling old world order following World I reflects many familiar themes throughout Kentridge’s work: the hypocrisies of a decadent bourgeois society, its unstable political system fueled by colonial conquest and capitalist industrialization, class conflict, and bellicose nationalism.
It is significant that Kentridge rejects the influence of the two most famous artists of the postmodern (post 1960) era – Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. He admits outright “They have no resonance for me.”6 Indeed his work revives all that the fundamental works of Warhol and Duchamp deny and suppress: authentic and spontaneous self-experience, exitential doubt, experssionist emotion and unconscious impulse.. His work continually pursues sincere connective and emotional depth with his audience, giving the opposite experience of Warhol's chilling pop cukture artifice and Duchamp's calculated conceptual alienation. The expressive intensity of his work challenges the malaise that poststructuralist ideology has had on art production in much of the mainstream art world for several decades now: an antidote to Michel Foucault’s deconstrucitivism which insists that the self is a cultural fabrication that predetermines any capacity for subjective agency or meaning. In the words of the existential philosopher Paul Tillich, “A self which has become a matter of calculation and management has ceased to be a self. It has become a thing. You must participate in a self in order to know what it is.” 7 Kentridge’s skill as an expressive draughtsman coupled with his free play of instinctive forms across different genres provides pathway out if the nihilistic and reductive Duchampian and Warholian systems that are still seen as the most popular models to adopt for artistic success.
It is precisely Kentridge’s existential doubt and uncertainty that has kept him authentic to his inner core of emotional and expressive reality. He has spoken at length about seeking a career when he was young - his sense of failing at being a visual artist, an actor in the theater and a filmmaker. He finally accepted the necessity of breaking the constraints of professionally defined boundaries by working with and between all these forms. This cross-fertilization of mediums expanded his expressive possibilities, most powerfully embodied in his animated films made from erased charcoal sketches. Kentridge’s expressive skill as a draughtsman is what gives his work it’s most compelling and comprehensive power.The endless alteration of his images moved with the ever-changing cast of his mind, creating scenes that were not storyboarded or scripted, but plucked whole from the mind in flight, dipping into the intensity and storms of the unconscious and feeling. “You can change a drawing as quickly as you think…and I proceed from impulse, improvisational accretions…showing the process of thinking”8
The exhibit featured Kentridge’s 2013 animation Second-Hand Reading presenting the artist as a walking collage of thoughts and images - a James Joycean stream-of-consciousness in animated drawings and words. The pages of an Oxford dictionary are reinvented as a giant flip book, piling up and receding in sequence as the artist’s drawings and written thoughts flash by with a subconscious ebb and flow. It bears some similarity to a 1974 animated film Diary by Yugoslavian artist Nedeljko Dragić, with its walking protagonist mutating to his musings on alienation, modernity and nostalgia.
Kentridge has talked about the impact of Polish poster art that began in the 1950’s as an early important influence, a means of allowing Surrealism, Dadaism, the unconscious and absurdity to break down the rational order of everyday life. This theme was also powerfully evoked in Eastern European animated films from the 1960’s and 70’s. The graphic
strangeness of Modernist art forms becomes as an elastic language that breaks up consciousness, space and time. These artists invented their own forms of expression in animation and graphic art as a subterfuge against reason – a means of getting the artist’s existential truth about life and reality through a Communist totalitarian system of censorship and police state violence. Like Kentridge animators such as Priit Pärn of Estonia, Jan Švankmajer of the former Czechoslovakia, and Nedeljko Dragić of the former Yugoslavia dismantled the status quo through irrationality, black humor and crudity, exposing the existential truth at the core of everyday thinking and life under a powerful police state.
The rough seams in Kentridge’s work which exposes how his art is made— in charcoal smears or cut paper, in found objects or constructed bricolage –showing the improvisational creativity of his mind. The work’s spontaneous play with material and ideas keeps the sense of doubt, uncertainty, possibility, and discovery alive in the work. This gift for experimentation is often seen in work of artists of the early 20th century including the significant Dadaist and Surrealist inventions of automatic writing and drawing. The chaos and the newness that came with the experience of modern life in the 20th century - and the ever-restless growth of capitalist power and nationalism - marked a century racked by the traumas of economic and social instability that resulted two world wars, the Russian revolution, and the rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes. Modernist art reacted to these seismic shifts and the crisis of meaning that arose from their aftermath.
The creators of modern art have been able to see the meaninglessness of our existence; they participated in its despair. At the same time, they have had the courage to face it and to express it in their pictures and sculptures. They had the courage to be as themselves. 9
Philosopher Paul Tillich further describes the importance of existentialism that came out of this period of catastrophes.
…[Existentialism] is not the invention of a Bohemian philosophy or a neurotic novelist; it is not a sensational exaggeration made for the sake of profit and fame; it is not a morbid play with negativities. Elements of all these have entered it, but it is something else. It is an expression of the anxiety of meaninglessness and of the attempt to take this anxiety into the courage to be as oneself. 10
This is what Kentridge’s doubt and uncertainty is about—the courage to be himself within the expressive and self-invented forms of his work. His work takes up the anxiety and meaninglessness he perceives at the historical heart of human existence, whether originating from the history of his own country or from others. This is what makes Kentridge’s work extraordinarily powerful, particularly in his animated films. “The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act.”11
The artist’s history has also made him wary of political propaganda of any kind with ideological claims to truth.
When [the political] is a field of exploration usually there is an imperative, an order, that when the work is made it should have a kind of political clarity, that it should have a clear political position…that’s I suppose where I resist. You see I am interested in an art that is still political, that deals with these questions, but that doesn’t feel it has to come out with a slogan, or an unambiguous or non-contradictory position, for the belief in those unambiguous noncontradictory positions are always false and are always lies and are always hidden authoritarianism.12
Kentridge’s refusal of ideological certainty is a refusal of authoritarianism, whether it is Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal economic dictum that “Society does not exist” or the moral relativity of postmodernism and the post-structuralist decree that the “self” is a construction of culture that does not exist. Kentridge’s “courage to be” asserts that both the complexity of society and the self are real, and cannot be dissolved by neoliberal, white supremacist, post-structuralist or politically correct ideological stances. He is an artist who understands the betrayal of ideology and idealism based on his history, much as the subversive Eastern European artists of the Communist era did. He has been able to survive the arbitrary vicissitudes of an art world dominated by neoliberal market values, where financial speculation supersedes and dominates art’s spiritual, historical, existential and humanistic importance. Like his Modernist predecessors, he has survived all these forces without collapsing into nihilistic despair. He keeps doubt, absurdity, and incoherence—what he calls “failure”—alive in what he calls a "narrow gap" that allows the survival of of his intuitive and expressive freedom. He claims “I prefer to work from not knowing what I am doing” and emphasizes that it is important “to be open to what you yourself don’t know.”
Few artists are better equipped to express the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the renewed rise of authoritarianism, white supremacy, fascism, and neo-colonial capitalist exploitation happening today. Kentridge has an extraordinary capacity to merge the expressive depth of his subconscious being—using great skill and intellectual acumen—with his life experiences under South African apartheid and beyond. His work over the past 4 decades in theater, animation, drawing, prints, sculpture, assemblage and all genres in between is an achievement that stands as the most socially powerful and existentially relevant artistic expression of the era we live in.
1. Robert Hughes Shock of the New p. 417
2. Paul Tillich The Courage to Be Yale University Press, 1952, p. 150
3. Ibid p. 121
5. Teach In Line http://teachonline.co/lesson/kentridge-background/
6. William Kentridge: How we make sense of the world, Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G11wOmxoJ6U
7. Paul Tillich The Courage to Be Yale University Press, 1952, p. 124
8. William Kentridge: How we make sense of the world, Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G11wOmxoJ6U
9. Paul Tillich The Courage to Be Yale University Press, 1952, p. 147
10. Ibid p. 139
11. Ibid p. 176
12. Frieze William Kentridge’s Indictment of Colonial and Apartheid Injustice. https://www.frieze.com/article/william-kentridges-indictment-colonial-and-apartheid-injustice