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William Kentridge - Biography and Legacy

South African Animator, Theatre Designer, Performance Artist, & Sculptor

Born: April 1955 - Johannesburg, South Africa
Movements and Styles:
Video Art

Biography of William Kentridge


William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955. His wealthy Jewish parents, Sir Sydney Kentridge and Felicia Geffen, were both anti-apartheid lawyers and civil-rights activists, a political backdrop and family lineage important for Kentridge's future career as an artist. His father achieved international status after defending Nelson Mandela in the "Treason Trials" of 1956-61 and also for representing the family of Steve Biko, founder of the "Black Consciousness Movement", who died in police custody in 1977.

In the large, leafy suburban house where he grew up, and still lives today, Kentridge was surrounded by reproductions of masterpieces by Cezanne, Matisse, Miro, and Modigliani. These images provided him with an early art education, as did regular family visits to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, "the gallery of my childhood." He recalls being particularly attracted to expressive forms, saying, "there are questions of ambiguity of mark and transformations of paint into the world ...that I remember being intrigued by - not knowing whether the streak of paint is a person or a ditch." In his vibrant, lively household his parents often entertained artist friends, as Kentridge remembers, "There were always family friends who were artists, so the idea of working in an artist's studio, as a real activity that people did, was not foreign."

Throughout his childhood Kentridge soaked up the political turmoil around him; he regularly witnessed "indignation and rage at the dinner table", while in one jarring incident he stumbled across a mysterious box which he thought was full of sweets, only to discover a series of harrowing police photographs documenting brutalised bodies to be used as legal evidence. These events remained with him, adding material to the collage of his art practice that he would emerge himself in decades later. In the following years as a growing boy, Kentridge was well educated at the King Edward VII School in Houghton, Johannesburg.

Early Training and Work

Kentridge earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and African studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, before changing course to study Fine Arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, yet the fascination with African history and politics remained with him. At art school he struggled with the traditions of oil on canvas, particularly when painting with color, choosing instead to focus on drawing with charcoal, even though it was generally considered an "ancillary" to painting. After taking an evening class in etching he found a small spark of new hope, remembering, "It felt fantastic. It let me think, okay, there is a way of being an artist in which color doesn't have to be the starting point."

By 1981 Kentridge had changed course again, leaving South Africa to study theatre in Paris with the hope of becoming an actor. His teacher, Jaques Lecoq, taught him an intuitive approach to directing, and how to harness, "meaning before words, everything else that makes meaning." After a year in Paris, Kentridge discovered he "wasn't any better at acting than painting," yet his fascination with time, movement, and characters remained, along with a desire to work collaboratively. He returned to South Africa with visions of becoming a filmmaker, working as a props assistant on a television series, yet again he found himself against a brick wall, recalling, "The film industry was so awful that I looked for any way of not being there."

After going through this process of "early failures", Kentridge found himself once again looking for a way to be an artist. Reflecting back, he recalls this period of searching as pivotal to the development of his career, discovering, "There's a sense of annihilation and not just disappointment. In the end, the work that emerges is who you are." He is now a strong advocate for failure as a vital element of the creative process, saying, "One can always write one's biography in the terms of the failures which have saved you." Throughout this time Kentridge had discovered a natural blend of interests in drawing, film, and performance, which would become the defining, hallmark characteristics of his mature work. Having previously been told that it was important to specialise, that he must decide either to act or to draw, or would otherwise become an amateur, he realised that quite to the contrary it was in a space of cross-fertilisation of genres where he in fact felt at home and could flourish.

Mature Period

Kentridge began producing and exhibiting black and white charcoal drawings which demonstrated his ongoing dissatisfaction with the South African apartheid regime in the 1980s, yet he soon felt stifled and frustrated by the material limitations he had set himself. As a way out, he developed a non-traditional animation technique to bring his drawings to life, saying, "...the first animated films I made were done on the basis of trying to get away from a program in which I could see my life heading out ahead of me (thirteen more solo exhibitions of charcoal drawings!)."

Instead of creating traditional animations by producing sequential drawings on separate sheets of paper, he began using a single sheet of paper, erasing and redrawing movements in charcoal and photographing the changes before bringing them together as a sequence on screen. Kentridge referred to this process as "poor man's animation", or "stone-age animation." Evidence of the erased changes were left behind on the page, a process he initially tried to remove, before realising it could add a visceral, tactile sensibility to his work, and he even began exhibiting the palimpsest-like drawings left behind alongside his films. Through such working methods Kentridge discovered a way of integrating his various interests in history, politics, filmmaking and drawing together into one, writing, "In the process of making, a meaning will emerge." The first full-animated film he made was Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989). At around this time Kentridge met and married Dr Anne Stanwix and the pair would go on to have three children together.

Forging collaborative partnerships with filmmakers, theatrical companies, and musicians over the years that have followed has allowed Kentridge to expand the breadth and ambition of his films. He frequently enlists the help of Catherine Meyburgh, South African TV and film director, who has assisted his work since the early 1990s. Kentridge also began collaborating on various projects with the Handspring Puppet Company at this time, creating a series of stage performances including Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992), in which both puppets and their manipulators are seen on stage. Kentridge's career as an artist gradually gained momentum over the following decade as he maintained a multimedia practice, combining elements of drawing, film, and theatre. Much of his work continued to contain political elements, but there is always a more abstract and philosophical approach that works in parallel.

In his animated films, some of his fictional characters appear repeatedly, most commonly Soho Eckstein, a hard-nosed capitalist in a pinstriped suit, and his nemesis, the artist and dreamer Felix Teitelbaum, two opposing characters representing the divided fields of apartheid, and also the contradictory forces even at odds within one individual. Kentridge says that both characters came to him in a dream, as he recalls, "I was keeping a dream diary. 'Soho Eckstein photographed with 120 artists and photographers who had been recoding Johannesburg, the second greatest city after Paris', was the phrase that I woke up with. The other one was the phrase, 'Felix Teitelbaum's anxiety flooded half of Central Park.' They're both kind of nonsense, bizarre phrases." Felix always appears naked, and is loosely a self-portrait of Kentridge, who admitted he was too embarrassed to ask anyone else to model for him.

Late Period

William Kentridge at the opening of his installation <i>The Refusal of Time</i>, Documenta (13), 2012

In 1997, Kentridge showed two films featuring Soho and Felix at Documenta, as at once haunting portrayals of the terrors in apartheid, as well as an examination of identity and the divided forces within the self then reflected outwards. Subsequently, Kentridge was quickly taken up by Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, London, Paris). Goodman remembers, "He was very much in demand. We had so many institutions dying to show his work, and he had this full flowering. He was getting one invitation after another."

In 2005 Kentridge extended his oeuvre to include opera, producing an alternate version of Mozart's The Magic Flute as seen through a contemporary lens for Brussels' La Monnaie, followed five years later by the production of Dmitri Shostakovich's satirical stage show, The Nose, inspired by Nikolai Gogol's surreal misadventures of a bureaucratic protagonist who goes in search of his missing nose, for New York City's Metropolitan Opera. His projects became bigger, even more muti-layered, and involved more collaborators.

Since 2006, Kentridge has been recognised as South Africa's best-known contemporary artist, with major showcases across the world from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Jeu de Paume in Paris and The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. Today, he continues to live and work at his family home in Johannesburg with his wife.

William Kentridge at an exhibition opening in Melbourne on 7 March 2012 at ACMI, Melbourne, Australia

In 2016, Kentridge founded the Center for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg, a center dedicated to support aspiring South African artists and creatives, encouraging them to be bold and take greater risks with their art forms. In defence of its unusual title Kentridge explains, "...good ideas have been so calamitous, all over the world, all the great utopian ideas of the last century, that our hope must now be with the less good idea - from smaller interventions from the margins."

William Kentridge with his artwork <i>Triumphs and Laments</i>, Rome, 2016

In 2018, Kentridge was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, a UK based programme for the First World War's centenary, to produce The Head & the Load, a multi-media performance celebrating the millions of African porters and carriers involved in the First World War. The resulting piece was first staged in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and awarded great critical acclaim.

The Legacy of William Kentridge

The rich variety of art forms Kentridge has explored throughout his career set him apart from many of his contemporaries, making him stand out as a leader in various fields, as a fascinating, yet difficult to define artist. This slippery oeuvre makes his act a tough one to follow, as Pierre Audi, artistic director of the Armory writes, "...(he) is not very easy to imitate." He advocates in many ways that the only person we can be is ourselves and encourages the use of the tools that we have been given, not to aspire to that which we are not. He is also a great example of an artist who is also an intellectual. Dispelling the myth that because artists are intuitive and sometimes refuse analysis of their work that they must therefore not be thinkers, Kentridge shows to the contrary that the sensual and the esoteric are umbilically linked. This is a model of art making, holistic and all inclusive, that looks back to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and is becoming interestingly much more common in the practice of many contemporary artists.

In Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age, Ed Krčma argues that both Kentridge and British artist Tacita Dean, "...dramatise (the) work of erasure, the insistent visibility of which announces their shared attachment to the temporality, materiality, and bodily investments made newly visible in 'analogue' drawing by the arrival of the digital." Kentridge's tactile, material approach to filmmaking, that clashes together old and new technology, has influenced a generation of filmmakers and artists who, in a Post-internet age, have sought ways of re-introducing elements of humanity, physicality, and sensuality back into their digital art; these include animator Katy Dove and filmmaker Luke Fowler. The at times overtly political language of Kentridge's art as a powerful means of communicating societal unrest has also continued to feed into the work of various artists, working both in South Africa and further afield, including multimedia artist Wayne Barker and the photography duo Hasan and Husain Essop.

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"William Kentridge Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 22 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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