William Kentridge’s First Retrospective in France Mesmerises….



Invisible Mending 2003



Versatile, political and poetic – the exhibition ‘William Kentridge: Five Themes’ is outstanding. The main reason is that his works do something art and film today struggle to do: they work on different levels, appealing as well as being accessible to everyone. He’s also one of the few artists who’ve successfully turned his hand to a number of artistic disciplines.  There’s a sense his creativity won’t be defined by one medium.



Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum shows around 40 of his pieces – including animated films (the highlight for me), drawings, prints, sculptures and books. It covers three decades of work. The South African artist deals with hard hitting subjects like apartheid, colonialism and totalitarianism but somehow he makes it dreamy, lyrical and amusing. It’s also his very personal account of identity in a fast changing world.


History of the Main Complaint 1996


This exhibition explores five primary themes in Kentridge’s art from the 1980s. Included are works related to the artist’s staging and design of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in March 2010. You can also see the films he’s most famous for - short animations based on charcoal drawings depicting everyday life under apartheid.


Let’s be honest - outside the art world, Kentridge is relatively unknown. He first made a name for himself in the late 1980s with the aptly titled Johannesburg, the 2nd greatest city after Paris. Since then Kentridge has earned a growing international reputation as one of South Africa’s most interesting artists and his drawings now fetch upwards of 250,000 euros apiece. Over time his subject matter has evolved from South Africa to more universal stories. His newer work is based on an intensive exploration of themes connected to his own life experience, as well as the political and social issues that most concern him. In the process he’s embarked upon a kind of universal history of war and revolution. Contrary to the norm for much political art, Kentridge takes a nuanced approach as he explores the ambiguous, often contradictory dynamic which entangles perpetrators, witnesses and victims.


Bridge 2001


In recent years Kentridge has also made a profound conceptual change in his work by adopting a reflexive and at the same time amused view of his personal relation to the world. Where in his first animations he presented a whole troupe of fictive characters, he himself is now the main character – both the maker of the drawings and the cinematographic auteur – of his own creations.


The work shown at the Jeu de Paume is layered, challenging and complex, but the only thing I would say is you might find yourself wondering, once we‘ve seen this vast body of work by William Kentridge, do we need to keep going back for more? Are there new and exciting revelations with each new oeuvre? I’m still not sure. But it must be said 'Five Themes' is funny and engaging and it highlights the broad scope of Kentridge’s artistic practice and diversity.



Drawing for the Opera The Magic Flute 2004-2005



Jeu de Paume, Paris until 5th September 2010.


The exhibition coincides with a display of Kentridge’s Egyptian Sketchbooks at the Louvre  until 8th October 2010.


Why go

It’s a comprehensive exhibition that highlights the broad scope of William Kentridge’s artistic practice and diversity of media. It’s both funny and engaging. He’s a rare and unique artist.


What to look for 

My favourite (and probably the favourite part of the majority of people there judging by the length of time people stayed in this room) was theme 3: The Artist in the Studio. Here Kentridge takes the classical genre of the self-portrait, using it as a way to present his artistic methods, seen in the setting of his studio. He becomes his own subject, presenting and describing his creative work with the greatest simplicity. I was mesmerized. I was fascinated by the endless layers, literal and conceptual, of images that are always in the process of transformation, being drawn, changed, erased and added to.



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