THere is a bottomless black hole in the Royal Academy A huge survey of South Africa Artist William Kentridge. On screen, a thick, gaping disk appears, spinning and spinning, sometimes speckled with a point of light to indicate some infinite passage downward. It’s nothing more than an animation, the simplest thing here, but it represents two horrors at once: our common fear of falling, and the whole horror of exhausting work down a mine shaft.
Kentridge (born in 1955) is the most prolific and genius animator in international art, whose dialectical sting of his charcoal lines extends all the way to Goya, Daumier, and German Expressionism. His style – never imitated or outdone – is now familiar yet never ceases to fascinate. Instead of the sequential drawings, one per frame, that make up most animations, Kentridge has worked for decades with a single image per scene drawn, redrawn, erased, and modified with charcoal and rubber.
These drawings proliferated in engravings, line drawings, animation, shadow plays, operas, ballets, tapestries, and mechanical puppet shows – all represented in RA – but they are the origin of everything he makes. Therefore, it is ideal to start the show with single images of recurring characters.
Below are drawings of the white industrial man Soho Eckstein, who live on the sweat and blood of the poor black citizens of Johannesburg, their faces pressing hard and close to the image plane. Here is his neglected wife, Mrs. E, and her onetime lover Felix Teitelbauma stocky bald artist with more than faint resemblance to his alter ego Kentridge, is generally depicted nude and from behind.
The world that Teitelbaum turns to look at is visible everywhere: miners exposed to brutality, queues of hungry citizens, policemen, dogs, howling hyenas, and the unidentified marionettes of apartheid. And he himself is omnipresent, sometimes as a watchful eye, sometimes as a ghostly scheme. You see it traced in an animated gif of the fat tyrant Alfred Jarry, the chubby Per Obo, where it now translates to Ba oppo From the secret police unit that tortured their victims. Kentridge’s father was a prominent defense attorney for black South African leaders, representing Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko’s family. The artist has a very humble and complex sense of his role as a political artist.
But as these single graphics are, they gather real power through movement. Kentridge films have an unusual height and pull to it, as each character seems to move through the heaviest of times, pulling the past with them – literally, in terms of all previous graphics, often spectral intelligible. Eckstein lowers his eyes and the full tone of the scene slowly sinks into depression and guilt. Teitelbaum turns to look at the room around him, his anxiety filling the house like dark water.
Images shiver and shift in fluid density to charcoal marks. Crowds build, grind, march across the landscape in one powerful continuum. Eckstein buys half of Johannesburg and the effect is artfully expressed as something like turning the page on the screen, erasing every sign of life I’ve ever seen.
Cigar smoke turns into speech, fax machines spew money. The shifts in Kentridge are very interesting. In the latest movie here, City Deep (2020), Eckstein looks at what he thinks is an open grave, only to discover a miner is digging another bottomless pit below. And all the certainty of European art fades before his eyes in the museum: the paintings simply disintegrate, deteriorate from their frames like soot from a fireplace.
But what all this means is that it is difficult to analyze, especially since few early masterpieces are listed here, such as his epochal History of the main complaint, Animation that lives up to the political compass. It was as if the grandeur of the Royal Academy elicited a response largely based on size. A high central gallery has been converted into a large-scale cinema of giant projections. Another full of Kentridge colonial landscapeHuge graphics quoting Victorian images of Africa without sharp effect. The third hangs with posters of his black and white collages that have been worked in mohair from Angora goats farmed in the Eastern Cape. Although delicate, this weave completely lacks its own touch.
Kentridge is so prolific that he could fill RA multiple times; As it is, he covered every available inch, making charcoal drawings right on the walls. However, this choice seems very polite in a nod towards Europe. A room of enormous roses and lilacs on newspapers is a great homage to Edouard Manet’s late silent life (Kentridge repeats). Paul Nadar’s famous portrait of Manet, fluffy in his wasp jacket, to emphasize the point). And you’ll see hints of Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism everywhere, particularly in the props and stage sets for performances.
Collaboration has always been Kentridge’s way of working, In recent times, events have grown more than ever. His productions included in Shostakovich’s opera the nose and Mozart magic fluteUnfortunately, these experiments are still far from behind the scenes. After being forced into a Covid lockdown, there is a feeling Kentridge has been living inside his head. He certainly shows himself there, a ruminant figure, walking back and forth within the moving pages of the book.
But it all comes together in a great multi-screen display Notes towards the opera model, which is nothing less than a torrential storm of images across three screens. The title refers to the typical Madame Mao opera, the only official music officially permitted during the Cultural Revolution. And what you see is equally embellished in his manner: drawings of birds in flight, images of the dead and the hungry, who may be Chinese or Africans, actors and dancers performing many parts in the wildest music: disgraced Chinese politicians, Rhodesian demagogues, African dancers. And through it all, ballerina across the pages of a magnified atlas, is a black ballerina dressed in communist uniform, but waving a flag like that of Delacroix. Freedom leads the people. All the ideals – and disasters – of revolution gather in this contest, the beauty of which is a colossal extension of Kentridge’s charcoal animation, where ghosts of the past always haunt the present.