Kentridge: drawn to the possibilities

South African artist shines in solo shows

William Kentridge’s “Felix in Exile’’ features images of a man longing for his lover in a room slowly filling with blue water. William Kentridge’s “Felix in Exile’’ features images of a man longing for his lover in a room slowly filling with blue water.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2010

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Scenes arise and dissolve swiftly in William Kentridge’s video “Automatic Writing.’’ Although we don’t see the writing instrument, we see the action of writing and drawing — an empty chair, a desk, a page filling up with text, a fountain, a building. The video embodies a core tenet of Kentridge’s practice: mark-making and erasure come and go like waves, as urgent and ephemeral as life on any given day.

The South African artist, something of a rock star in the art world and a jack of all trades who has worked in theater and film, has his first solo shows in the Boston area up at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “Ambivalent Affinities,’’ organized by the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spotlights Kentridge’s groundbreaking post-apartheid films and a handful of print projects dating up to 2001. “Projects,’’ put together by Mass Art, surveys his recent works, including “Automatic Writing.’’

He’s the subject of “William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible,’’ the PBS show presented by Art21. ( And on Wednesday Kentridge will receive the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Japan, for his wide-ranging work encompassing drawing, animation, stage direction, and writing.

Several short films from the series “Drawings for Projection’’ compose the heart of the two Mass Art shows. They screen one after the next on a loop in the center gallery. Like “Automatic Writing,’’ they’re laborious, hand-drawn animations: Kentridge would draw a frame in charcoal, erase it, and draw the next frame on the same page. Images coalesce and dissolve against a sooty ground that suggests a haze of history from which all present moments spring, and into which they vanish.

The films feature two recurring characters who first appeared to the artist in dreams: fat-cat businessman Soho Eckstein in a pinstriped suit, and naked Felix Teitlebaum, who loves Eckstein’s wife.

The stories are disjointed and surreal, spinning out tales of violence, love, and power. There’s a constant edge of brutality and oppression, so while they don’t explicitly refer to apartheid, it’s in the air. In “Felix in Exile,’’ images of people bleeding to death on the street are intercut with those of Felix longing for his lover in a room slowly filling with blue water. The blue is the only color in the film, an expression of yearning. “Mine’’ sets Soho Eckstein far above a legion of men who sleep in compartments, and shower side by side. Eckstein depresses his French coffee press, and it sends a drill deep into the earth.

Kentridge uses these two characters to create stories that are tender, horrifying, and morally complex. Scenes of violence and oppression mingle with a sense of longing. Eckstein is not simply an exemplar of capitalist greed. He has a heart, as well, and in “Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old,’’ the two men tussle over the woman between them.

The artist has said that both characters are his alter egos. It’s clear that Eckstein’s wife, also a recurring figure, is not. Unfortunately, she’s often simplistic, merely an object of desire. Still, the “Drawings for Projection’’ films are hypnotic and open-ended, dark but so dense with suggestion that every viewer will carry something different and personal away.

Kentridge has a technical fascination with perspective; maybe that’s why he allows each of us our own. “Atlas Procession I,’’ an etching, sprang from a projection of figures the artist made onto a domed ceiling. The print hangs on the wall, but the shabby travelers walking along the edge of a round map are drawn as if we are far below them. One fellow kneels to peer down at us.

“Medusa’’ is an anamorphic print — a lithograph in which Kentridge’s distorted viper-haired monster appears corrected in its reflection on an aluminum tube. On the page, Medusa’s face is weirdly elongated like a sliver of moon, and cradled in snakes. But in the reflection on the aluminum, she’s a more typical horror.

Pieces like these remind us that perception plays a mighty part in comprehension. Every scene and story is flavored by what the viewer brings to it. While Kentridge often rails against misused power, he is also aware of his own foibles and judgments. He recently made an amusing series of prints in preparation for directing a production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose’’ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last spring. The choice is pure Kentridge, surreal and comical, and set in the severely flawed corridors of power.

The opera is based on a Nikolai Gogol story about a bureaucrat who wakes up to discover his nose gone. The nose, meanwhile, has become an official of higher rank than the bureaucrat. Kentridge riffs on the idea, and gets even more beyond the pale. In “Nose 29,’’ a man in uniform holds a gun to the oversize nose. In “Nose 14,’’ the nose sits on the shoulders of a nude woman.

Most of the men in Kentridge’s pieces are based on him — middle-aged, balding, with a significant paunch, and often naked (such a figure ends up sitting at the writing desk at the end of “Automatic Writing’’). Amid all the visual experimentation and social commentary, these men come across as sweetly human. I love the pair in “Middle Age Love (Dancing Couple),’’ a large lithograph. The man leans into the woman, obscuring her. He is forceful and needy. She seems to be holding him up. As with any artist, Kentridge’s oeuvre is a kind of self-portrait, and these two shows convey his intellectual rigor, his hungers and his angers, and the generosity of his vision.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: Ambivalent Affinities

and Projects At: Sandra & David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston, through

Dec. 11. 617-879-7333,