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William Kentridge: Five Themes in San Francisco

Submitted by on April 6, 2009 – 9:30 pm
South African artists opens at SFMOMA with huge traveling show.

By Wanda Hennig for Sunday Tribune, South Africa
San Francisco Street photos Wanda Hennig

A William Kentridge show banner outside SFMOMA.

A William Kentridge show banner outside SFMOMA.

You know your countryman has attained superstar status when you walk around San Francisco’s busy downtown and see banners with his name plastering the city streets. And clearly, in United States art circles, South African artist William Kentridge is a rock star.

“About 15 years ago we started seeing William’s work at international exhibitions,” says Mark Rosenthal, adjunct curator of modern art at the Norton Museum of Art, Florida. “The world’s in love with him now. He’s being lionized,” continues Rosenthal, who curated Kentridge’s huge, complex, record-setting show, Five Themes, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) on March 14.

William Kentridge — from the show.

William Kentridge — from the show.

Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, where he still lives and works, Kentridge has earned international acclaim for his interdisciplinary practice, which often fuses drawing, film and theater. Known for engaging with the social landscape and political background of South Africa, he has produced a potent body of work exploring oppression and social conflict, loss and reconciliation and the nature of personal and cultural memory.

Having long ago moved his focus beyond South Africa into international commentary, most recently he and his art have been examining Russian modernism and the suppression of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s, depicted in the fifth theme of the San Francisco show.

William Kentridge — from the Five Themes exhibition.

William Kentridge — from the Five Themes exhibition.

Mark Rosenthal was sharing his thoughts on Kentridge before addressing the invited crowd at a California media preview of the show. In the audience from Johannesburg were several Goodman Gallery representatives and also the artist’s wife and sometime model, medical doctor Anne Stanwix.

The fourth floor exhibition, which runs through several galleries, makes use of 25 projectors and includes 75 works in a range of media including animated film, drawings, prints, shadow puppets, theater models, music, sculptures, books and more. Seeing it all could easily occupy you for an entire day.

William Kentridge — from the Five Themes exhibition.

William Kentridge — from the Five Themes exhibition.

“I’m passionate about William’s work and this is a profoundly wonderful show, enormously complex in scale, covering an extensive body of work of a truly unique artist of universal scope,” SFMOMA director Neal Benezra told the gathering. Benezra co-curated a 2001 U.S. retrospective of Kentridge’s work.

“We were looking beyond a typical retrospective of the artist’s work,” Rosenthal added, explaining that “William’s approach is to look at a subject, investigate it, reflect on it, think about it for a while — so you see a thought process going along with the work.”

This process — how Kentridge works — is the first of the five primary themes of the show; themes that have engaged Kentridge for the past three decades.

See Emma Krasov’s review blog on the William Kentridge opening.

South African artist William Kentridge on the streets of San Francisco.

South African artist William Kentridge on the streets of San Francisco.

Theme One, “Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio”, examines Kentridge’s work where the practice of his own art is the subject.

“The studio is the home of the image, so work about the studio become about both the activity and the history of image making,” Kentridge explains in a 264-page large format hard-covered tome produced by SFMOMA and the Norton Museum to catalog the show.

Many of the projects in this first theme reflect the invisible work that happens before he starts a drawing, creating a theme or a sculpture, says Kentridge of this body of work, which includes seven films of the artist at work in his studio where the mood is at the same time poetic, dejected, funny, dark — and full of energy.

Theme Two is dedicated to Kentridge’s well-known fictional characters, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. This theme takes us back to the political and social climate of Johannesburg during the final decade of apartheid.

Theme Three grew out of Ubu Rex, Kentridge’s 1975 play, and the body of work it inspired. It is in this theme that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings feature.

Theme Four was inspired by Kentridge’s 2005 production of the Mozart opera, The Magic Flute. Acknowledging the importance of the artist’s theatrical work, on Tuesday of this week (March 24), Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, directed by Kentridge and featuring South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, opened for a five-night run at San Francisco’s Project Artaud Theater.

Since 1992, Kentridge has worked with puppet company, creating multimedia pieces using puppets, live actors and animation.

Theme Five continues the theatrical theme and in fact, fast-forwards us into one of the artist’s major forthcoming projects. In the gallery, we see a multi-channel projection made in preparation for Kentridge’s staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 opera, The Nose, based on Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story of 1836. It concerns a Russian official whose nose disappears from his face and subsequently turns up, in uniform, as a higher-ranking official.

Kentridge’s staging of The Nose will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in March 2010 and will coincide with the opening of the Five Themes exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

By then this exhibition, which runs in San Francisco through May 31, will have been to both the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and the Norton Museum of Art in Florida. From New York it will move to Europe and galleries in Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam, and also the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “The show is likely to set a touring record for the number of cities visited by a single exhibition,” says SFMOMA director Neal Benezra.

On tour and being feted — South Africa’s rock star of contemporary art.
© Wanda Hennig, 2009

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