Tapestry, drawing, etching, bronze, film: William Kentridge at Australian Galleries, Melbourne 2022
“When I went to art school, the idea was if you were going to be an artist, you had to paint with oil paints on canvas. I discovered that I was very bad at that, so it was an enormous relief to discover that there already existed a strong tradition of drawing as a primary medium of art-making.”
Sifting through the hyperbole that often envelops upcoming exhibitions to settle upon one or two that stand out as truly ‘must see’ is an overwhelming task in an era where our media platforms are crowded with artists and galleries gaming for our attention. That is until now.
When news of South African artist William Kentridge’s exhibition at Australian Galleries in Melbourne broke, a sigh of relief could be heard across a rather weary art world.
Kentridge’s multifaceted exhibition - reflecting the extraordinary breadth of this artists skills over an acclaimed career - hosted by Australian Galleries in conjunction with Sydney’s Annandale Galleries saw large scale tapestries dating from 2009 to 2021, several series of etchings, drawings, sculptures and film span across two expansive galleries. Although over now, seemingly far too soon, this exhibition cannot easily be confined to the past and forgotten.
William Kentridge, '3 Figures' (2011) (tapestry) Photo: Australian Galleries
William Kentridge, 'Colleoni' (2021) (tapestry) Photo: Australian Galleries
It was no small achievement bringing these seminal works to Melbourne, as the ever-present Gallery Director Stuart Purves openly attests as he moves about the gallery simultaneously greeting visitors and tantalising clients over his mobile phone on this the show’s last day. Not usually prone to understatement, Purves was however astute in pointing out to me and conveniently I feel to whoever was on the other end of that mobile phone that these works really do need to be viewed in person to fully appreciate their scale.
Kentridge is an exciting and truly international visual artist, humanist, and very much engaged in the politics of his native South Africa. But there is no hint of contrivance or appropriation of remote themes or imagery found in this artist's work to make his point. The themes and imagery of Kentridge's art are born of this artist's remarkable first-hand experiences and because of their raw honesty and universality, resonate with audiences a half world away.
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.[i]
Kentridge cares deeply and is connected to his surroundings, with contemporary happenings often appearing in his work - incidents of violence, racial prejudice, and traces of the apartheid system.
William Kentridge, 'Skeletal Horse (Struggle For a Good Heart)', (2017) (etching) Photo: Australian Galleries
Stuart Purves AM, Australian Galleries Photo: Flyingconnoisseur
But as if consciously seeking to both expose and redeem his homeland, Kendridge’s work overall tends more strongly towards poetic, philosophical, and theatrical ways of thinking rather than any specific political mindset.
"Kentridge's recurrent themes then are timeless and universal (and) include an interest in self, in relationships, in time, and in the cycle of life."[ii]
Indeed Kentridge is so determined to mimic the 'real and fragmented 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 pieces 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.[iii]
William Kentridge, 'Four Figures' (2017) (linocut) Photo: Australian Galleries
Typically sombre and relatively dark in mood, often with blackened, fragmented figures silhouetted against topographical images defining the unsettling times but without dating the work, 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, portrayed so starkly by Kollwitz and Bacon, is often balanced by some aspect of humour.
Although producing prodigiously intelligent works across multiple disciplines, Kentridge assures 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.
William Kentridge, 'Quartet' (2021) Photo: Australian Galleries
William Kentridge, 'Something Has Been Postponed', (2019). Photo: Australian Galleries
Käthe Kollwitz, 'Volunteers (Die Freiwilligen)' (1921-22) Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
This no doubt 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, theatrical murals and sculpture with dance and comedic action.[iv]
Annandale Galleries Director Bill Gregory’s accompanying essay for Kentridge’s Melbourne exhibition reads,
‘Perhaps no other contemporary artist has been so successful in so many disciplines on such an international scale. His profile is extraordinary, having exhibited in many of the great arts institutions of the world such as the Metropolitan in New York, also directing acclaimed theatre productions and operas, notably Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Sydney Opera House in 2018. Kentridge has been innovative in each of the many fields he has chosen.
Fundamental to Kentridge’s success has been his ability to collaborate and bring out the best in his collaborators. His closest are with his longtime associates in Johannesburg – artists and craftspeople such as David Krut (printmaking) and Marguerite Stephens (tapestries).
William Kentridge with Marguerite Stephens in New York (2017) Photo: The New York Times
Australian Galleries, Melbourne
Robert Bell, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the National Gallery of Australia, wrote in Artonview in 2013, following the acquisition of ‘Streets of the City’ by the National Gallery of Australia: “Kentridge draws connections between the arts of cartography and weaving, both processes built point-by-point along defined axes. He joins choreography and topography in a type of literal street theatre, where allusions to the theatre curtain, propaganda and the disjointed shadows of the homeless and dispossessed as ‘performers’ are reconnected through the courtly, stable and civilizing process of weaving.” Bell shows how significant the process of tapestry weaving is to Kentridge’s ever-developing oeuvre and gives an insight into how they illicit such immediate and intense reactions.’ [v]
And while the tapestries remained the central, imposing feature of this exhibition, some standing over 4 metres tall and only just scraping within the galleries’ generous ceiling heights, the drawings, etchings, and bronzes on display were equally enthralling, tying together as superb examples of this extraordinary artist’s oeuvre, all with Kentridge's gifted, fractured drawing at their heart.
This exhibition will remain one of the best offerings of a major Australian private gallery for years to come, and it could not have come along at a better time.
William Kentridge in his Johannesburg studio Photo: Stella Oliver
For anyone interested in viewing William Kentridge's full exhibition here is the link, Australian Galleries.
[iv] ibid, p3
[v] Bill Gregory, ‘William Kentridge, Tapestry, drawing, etching, bronze, film’, Media Release (Essay), Annandale Galleries, Sydney 2021
Main Photo: William Kentridge Photo: Merwelene van der Merwe