William Kentridge’s drawing style is so bold and lively that it hardly needs animation to bring it to life. And yet his animated films crackle with energy, just like anything he creates, despite the fact that it is nearly entirely done with rare, hence extremely effective, daubs of color. A survey of his work is at MOMA through May 17, entitled William Kentridge: Five Themes, covering major themes and periods in his oeuvre—Ubu, Soho Eckstein/Felix Teitlebaum, in the studio, and his operas. The artist appears frequently as subject matter as well.
The installation’s flow and layout work well with the material at hand. Videos are screened on full walls in cube-shaped rooms with wide doors, integrating them into the larger installation, rather than ghetto-izing them, as often happens with curtained video projection spaces. The scale of his two-dimensional work ranges from intimate to grand. Many of the modest-sized charcoals and prints feature lone figures, but they always seem to be straining the bounds of the paper edges—leaning, marching, caged, melded with some non-human object like a tree, waiting to burst out.
Kentridge is from South Africa, and its singular political history weaves its way through his work in varying degrees, most prominently in the first two themes. He has been involved in theater for much of his career, which perhaps informs his striking compositions and use of the frame, as well as honing in on striking moments. The fact that his work is mostly in black and white evokes the sardonic political imagery by Goya and Daumier; he also incorporates text and newspaper clippings, which adds the urgency and timeliness of propaganda/news delivery.
In recent years, Kentridge has directed and designed opera. Two model theaters occupy one gallery, featuring drawings and film on a tiny stage. Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute, seen at BAM a few years ago, charmed and intoxicated visually with its multi-layered drawings and animation. The animals (rhinos and birds) depicted are particularly captivating. His production of The Nose opens at The Met this weekend. A number of sketches and working materials for it are on view, and it appears that Kentridge’s bent for the absurd is pressed into intriguing service.
Image: William Kentridge. Drawing for the film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old [Soho and Mrs. Eckstein in Pool]. 1991. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 47 1/4 x 59” (120 x 150 cm). Collection of the artist. © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.