“Every triumph has brought a lament in its wake.”
In 2016, William Kentridge began discussions with long-time collaborator, Master Printer Jillian Ross of the David Krut Workshop (DKW), about using preparatory drawings from his monumental frieze on the banks of the Tiber River – Triumphs & Laments: A Project for Rome – as the basis for a series of prints. The Triumphs & Laments Woodcut Series is made up of six almost-life-size, multi-sheet, multi-timber woodcut prints, the results of a three-year-long process that do justice to the extraordinary ambition of the Tiber River frieze. In celebrating the completion of the series, the artist approved the editioning of one block each from the images that make up the Refugees diptych – the last print to be completed. The two small woodcuts provide an insight into the complexity of woodcut editioning with a reference to the frieze project. The single blocks editioned can be seen at the bottom right in the first work – God’s Opinion is Unknown, and at the top left in the second – Leaning on Air.
The text appearing at the top of the right-hand portion of the dipthych – “Leaning on air” – finds its origins in poetry, from a time in which Kentridge was perusing various volumes of international poetry, searching for lines that could be relevant in a libretto for another project. As often happens in Kentridge’s work, the line was stored somewhere in his consciousness, emerging later out of masses of information and associations that come into play when the time is just right and the work calls for something particular. Unlike the other text in this work the initial source, in exactitude, is unclear, but rather than presenting a barrier to understanding, this obscurity opens the phrase up to interpretation, making room for the viewer’s empathy in the context of the image.
The text, “God’s opinion is unknown”, comes from Sol T. Plaatje’s Sechuana Proverbs, published in 1916, that contains 732 Setswana proverbs, their translations, and their ‘European equivalents.’ The text also featured in Kentridge’s 2018 theatre production, The Head & the Load, which aimed to generate a process-led understanding of the relationship between the First World War and colonialism in Africa. The inclusion of this text brings the focus back to Kentridge’s homeland, and also to his own sense while growing up in Johannesburg that he was constantly looking to Europe and the great cultural achievements, the green wooded landscapes, and feeling as if he existed somehow on the periphery. Furnished later in life with a fuller and more layered understanding, constantly evolving, of history and its gaps, this perception of missing out becomes more complicated.
God’s Opinion is Unknown is printed onto a single sheet; Leaning on Air uses two overlapping sheets of paper, which are then attached to a sturdy backing sheet using a similar hinging technique to the one employed for the Universal Archive series of linocuts. Both prints have been made using Kitakata, a very fine gampi paper from the Philippines, the deckle edges of which are left intact and printed over. The deckles are visible at the bottom of each print, emphasising the way in which the works float on top the backing sheet, having been hinged only at the top.
Text – Jacqueline Flint, 2020