William Kentridge at Edinburgh Printmakers

Edinburgh Printmakers in collaboration with David Krut Projects will be showing an exhibition of William Kentridge prints’ during the Edinburgh Festival from 21 July to 8 September. The show is called “William Kentridge Prints” – published by David Krut New York. Earlier this year, the curator at Edinburgh Printmakers, Sarah Manning-Cordwell, approached David Krut and Kate McCrickard, the Director of David Krut Projects, New York, to put together this show of prints. The exhibition includes the now-famous “Thinking Aloud” series (2004), as well as several other works published by David Krut and editioned by Jillian Ross at the David Krut Print Workshop in Johannesburg: “The Magic Flute: Doves” series (2007); “L’Inesorabile Avanzata“; The Magic Flute: Man and Dove; and a new Self-Portrait. Also included in the show are several earlier works such as the “Zeno Writing” suite (2002) and the eight etchings of “Ubu Tells the Truth” (1996/7). This will be the first exhibition of Kentridge’s work in Scotland.

On Saturday 28 July David Krut will be at the show to give a talk about the work and his collaborations with Kentridge over the years.

For more on the show you can go the Edinburgh Printmakers website http://www.edinburgh-printmakers.co.uk/

Kate McCrickard has written the essay for the catalogue which appears here courtesy of Edinburgh Printmakers and was commissioned by them especially for the exhibition.

By Kate McCrickard

William Kentridge, South Africa’s celebrated polymathic artist startlingly combines the mediums of theatre, mime, sculpture, printmaking and drawing in his work. For Kentridge, drawing is the thought-process. The hand holding the stick of charcoal on the page or the tip of the burin inscribing the plate discovers, expands, and explains the thought in the mind. Drawing is the glue that holds his work together, and appears in varied forms: as single drawings, prints or filmed projections. Drawings from each discipline cross reference back and forth, from the paper to the stage, from the stage to the plate, from the paper into film. This interplay between mediums builds rich strata into Kentridge’s work, ricocheting ideas across a common group of images. There remains an established repertoire of characters and forms that he dips in and out of, bringing certain thoughts and motifs to centre stage and off again, in a similar manner to the method of erasure and addition he uses to create his animated films.

Collaboration has always been an integral part of Kentridge’s working process alongside his private studio practice. He completed a course in theatre study in Paris from 1981-1982, and has been commended internationally for his theatre productions of Woyzeck on the HighveldFaustus in AfricaUbu and the Truth Commission, and the operas Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, and most recently, Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Kentridge himself has served as actor, designer, performer and director. Theatre work and set design demand collaboration with other artists and performers, and this enjoyment of collaborative creativity reverberates in Kentridge’s explorations in the field of printmaking. Printmaking is an area of Kentridge’s work not to be overlooked as simply an addendum to the animation, drawing and theatre, but as a fundamental multifarious body of work in its own right. He interrogates the various printmaking techniques with vigour and ingenuity. We observe the prints developing alongside the animated works and drawings, creating a parallel dialogue and a forum for the growth of incubating ideas. The range of Kentridge’s printmaking is apparent from the stark monotypes of the 1970’s and the ambitious large-scale works produced with Jack Shirreff at the 107 workshop in the 1990’s, to more investigative experimental pieces such as Phenakistoscope, the Medusa that incorporates an anamorphic drawing, and the recent stereoscopic Chambre Noire edition published by Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin.

Kentridge has produced between two to three hundred prints during the course of his career to date, in linocut, woodcut, lithograph, screenprint, etching, drypoint, photogravure, engraving and monotype. His prints range from sketchbook observational landscapes and figure work, to ambitious giant scale works including “the Sleeper Suite” and “the Learning  Flute” diptych. His preferred methods are traditional – the diamond-tipped drypoint tool that cuts into the soft copper surface “like a knife through butter”, as Kentridge has commented; the waxy lithographic crayon; the yield of a soft ground to the impression of a thumb print; and the velvety gravure tones comparable to dark smudged charcoal. He rarely produces digital prints, and when he does, they are to assist in fund-raising for various organisations. His printmaking palette is conservative. He sticks to the black and white monochrome tones that he favours as a draughtsman, as an essentially graphic artist working with the uncomplicated mediums of charcoal, graphite, chalk and ink. Clearly the challenge of printmaking with its complexities and eccentricities; the interpretation and collaboration required in inking, wiping and printing a plate; the reversals of reading and thinking, engage and challenge this erudite artist. The selection of works on exhibit at Edinburgh Printmakers, the first comprehensive survey of Kentridge’s prints in Scotland, gives an excellent introduction to one of the world’s most dedicated and skilled printmakers.

The diptych prints, Man with Megaphone and Man with Megaphone Cluster, 1998, are classic illustrations in print of Kentridge’s character, Felix Teitlebaum, from the 1989 – 1996 series of animations. Felix is a poet-dreamer, an alter ego to Soho Eckstein, the melancholic magnate in a pin-stripe suit, an emblem of consumerism that greedily exploits South Africa’s natural resources. Kentridge used his own image to draw out Felix and Soho, and we can assume he was also the model for the two Man and Megaphone prints. The two figures we see in these prints are taciturn, with bowed heads and shadowed profiles, general figures of vulnerable humanity. Naked but for a black bowler hat and bedroom slippers, they pace the floorboards. The megaphone may stand for a symbol of faceless power and dictatorship or may simply represent the artist’s own voice. A blue chalked line divides the paper into two halves. (This division derives from the animated film, Stereoscope (1998), where the animation is played out on two screens running in parallel to recreate the double viewfinder of a stereoscope.) The incorporation of Kentridge’s own figure, however, is never simple self-portraiture, but a means whereby the artist acknowledges personal and collective responsibility. It is also a clear declaration of a preoccupation with the human condition that makes his work both social and general.

Kentridge began working on the Ubu Tells the Truth series of prints in 1996, to coincide with the centenary of Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi. Kentridge was familiar with the work as he once played the part of Captain McNure. He also staged his own production in 1997 (Ubu and the Truth Commission), and comments that,

“The question was how to find an Ubu that was neither the same as Jarry’s iconic drawings of Ubu with his pointy head and spiral belly, nor one that ignored his original motif. In the end I decided to do images with a combination of Jarry’s schematic Ubu, drawn as a white line on black ground, and a more fleshy figure of Ubu who was both enclosed by these chalk drawings and making them. I took a series of photos of myself in the studio performing the part of Ubu and used these as the basis for the fleshy Ubu figure in front of the white drawing.”

The suite of eight etchings are laid out as mini stage sets, marked with fictitious scene and act numbers. Burnishing and scraping back into the black aquatint effectively grafts the appearance of the same receding wooden floorboards that appear in the Man and Megaphone prints. These floorboards suggest the artist’s studio brought onto the stage to function as a performance arena for Ubu. Kentridge uses his own thumbprints and the heel of the hand to create the contours of the naked Ubu’s flesh by pressing into the soft ground. Ubu performs in the prints – dancing, flagellating himself, showering, drawing, riding tandem on a bicycle and sleeping. The corporeal Ubu (although drawing the other Ubu) appears to be imprisoned by the flaccid white line Ubu who is, in turn, trapped, flattened out on the back wall like a blackboard drawing. This linear Ubu, with its acknowledgement of Jarry, stamps footprints all over the final plate while the two fleshy Ubus conduct their strange dance in front of a mirror.

The print marked, Act IV, Scene I from the Ubu suite provides the compositional motif that Kentridge expounds upon in the large Sleepers, a series of 4 prints, 1997. The artist,Ubu, lies naked on a table suggestive of hospital beds, mortuary slabs, dissecting tables or torture chambers. There is nothing sexual or voyeuristic about this portrayal of the male nude, (the artist again) who exists rather as an asexual figure of suffering and resignation, an interesting counterpoint to the tradition of the reclining female nude in western art. South Africa gained its independence under Mandela in 1994, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its arduous process of confession and healing. Kentridge was working on large-scale charcoal drawings of Ubu at this time and in order to bring a sense of the body abused, damaged and humiliated into the drawings (in accordance with the histories revealing themselves on the radio every morning in the TRC broadcasts), he rode over the paper on a bicycle, flagellated the paper with a charcoal-impregnated silk rope and invited, “children and cats” to trample upon and desecrate the image. To carry these marks onto a plate through printmaking, Kentridge used a range of materials and objects and pressed them into a soft ground painted onto the giantSleeper plates, leaving footprints, scrapes and scratches. The first Sleeper plate, Sleeper 1, on display here, shows the artist’s initial etching, aquatint and drypoint marks. Sleeper Red and Sleeper Black drop aquatint screens around the figure, while Sleeper and Ubu reintroduces the spiral and foot of Jarry’s suspended schematic phantom through a pronounced plastic dremmel line, produced by using power tools to engrave into a sheet of polycarbon.

Like the “Sleeper” prints, the large print titled, The Blue Head, 1993-8 was made at 107 Workshop, Wiltshire, with master printer, Jack Shirreff. The Blue Head introduces islands of colour created from an assembly of torn sheets of paper into a hand-painted ultramarine blue template, printed over the drypoint marks. Between the slabs of colour, the grey plate tone of the paper jumps out, creating the sense of an immense sculpted head breaking apart – an image of rift and schism sometimes interpreted as a symbol for the African continent. This print was also editioned separately with some trial plates hand-painted in Hooker’s green and burnt orange in place of the blue.

Kentridge often produces suites of small prints in order to work in narrative, with a sense of the cinematic akin to his theatre and charcoal animations. He explains the exploratory process for the development of the “Summer Graffiti” suite of eight prints as follows:

“I had been asked to do a fund-raising print for my old high school, and had looked for a suitable textbook on which to do the images. In a second-hand bookshop I found a teacher’s manual called Errors in School, which, with appropriate schoolboy regression, became “Eros in School”, and a kind of erotic doodle. The series Summer Graffiti was an extension of this print – a mixture of erotic dreams and sketching on blackboards, which either held the images or became part of them.”

Unlike some of Kentridge’s lithographs that are assemblages on actual pages torn from found books such as Leviathan (Arc Shadow Procession) and the “Baedeker” series, “Summer Graffiti” conjures the illusion of a text page through printing rather than collaging. In order to faithfully recreate the feel of a schoolboy’s jotter, the sheets of Vélin d’Arches Crème are die-cut into curves at the corners. Horizontal line dividers in grey, and a vertical red margin line are carefully printed as in a jotter. The black flat areas of tone suggest the torn black Canson paper Kentridge has used in his assemblages, most notably in the animation Shadow Procession. Here, it forms the blackboard that hovers in and out behind and in front of the figures, outlining the contours of the siren who vamps for the schoolboy in Plate 1, and forming the sensual outline of an exposed breast in Plate 9, where a naked man’s hand, like a bear’s paw, reaches lasciviously for her. The reversal of positive and negative space is used to great effect in these works, and some of the more beautiful passages occur when a glossy black lithographic line is printed over the matt blackboard shapes. Fingerprints and thumbprints block out thighs, buttocks and heads. The reclining female, arms behind a head of cornrow plaits in Plate 28, recalls Picasso, and is the stargazer who haunts Felix in Kentridge’s animation, Felix in Exile (1994). The whole suite bustles with the themes of voyeurism and scopophilia, with some graphically sexual scenes sparked by Picasso’s studies of the artist in the studio ogling his models.

The “Zeno Writing” set of nine photogravure and drypoint prints, 2002, comment on the obsessions that haunt Italo Svevo’s nicotine addict, Zeno, in the novel,Confessions of Zeno, set in Trieste at the time of World War 1. Zeno’s character is present in Kentridge’s depictions of smoke swirls, the violence of the war, desolate landscapes and recurring references to the absence of a fixed centre. The Panther print shows Marie Rainer Rilke’s panther prowling back and forth behind his bars. To construct this series of prints, Kentridge projected his animated film, Zeno Writing (2002) onto the studio wall and froze particular frames with a point and shoot camera. The flash from the camera serendipitously conjured the sense of a theatrical spotlight in the gravure tone when the negatives were transferred to copper. The artist subsequently inscribed a drypoint line directly into the photogravure tone with occasional burnishing to bring out highlights. This was the artist’s first foray into photogravure, a medium well suited to creating a sense of ‘smokiness’ and nicotine appropriate to Svevo’s subject matter, and ideal for suggesting the smudgy, protean nature of charcoal for which Kentridge is known.

The image of the reclining nude in the Zeno Writing suite is a photograph of the artist’s wife, Anne, posed on a couch in Venice beneath swathes of curtain, and with a shower of golden droplets burnished in behind her head. It reads as homage to Venice’s most famous painter, Titian, and his bedroom images of the female nude portrayed as Venus receiving Zeus as a hail of golden coins. The question of metamorphosis is also present in the figural shapes of chorus singers, a typewriter, a bottle opener and a megaphone head on a pylon. These shapes derive from theatre puppets that rotate on stage to become other creatures. What appear to be floating islands or trenches in the prints are actually the platforms behind which the puppeteers hide. In Kentridge’s animation, the acanthus railing curls into the smoke, the typewriter springs into a military machine and the coiled barbed wire turns into calligraphic writing and back into an acanthus railing.

The two groups of drypoint works titled “Thinking Aloud, Small Thoughts”, and “Thinking Aloud” (three larger works), 2004, form part of Kentridge’s research for his production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“I had done a series of extended interviews with the art historian Angela Breidbach for a book called Thinking Aloud… While talking I had tried to explain points with musings somewhere between a sketch and a diagram – and was left with pieces of paper that were a trace of the process of thinking rather than an illustration of it. These visual musings have a very different feel to the considered drawings that I made when my attention was with the marks being driven by the thoughts behind them. But of course copper is not the same as a scrap of paper, and both the need to think backwards…and the resistance of the material to the drypoint needle, meant that the images ended up somewhere between the lightness of the sketches done during the interviews, and the more considered images that would usually be on an etching plate. The images were made at the time I was working on The Magic Flute, so there are a lot of references to the opera in the series… There was a specific thought behind each image, but for many of them I now have scant idea what it was. In all of them it is more the leaps and connections, a reinforcement of half-formed ideas rather than a particular illustration.”

Some of the notational ideas in the Thinking Aloud prints are developed further in Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute. The drawing of Sarastro wearing a beret at an easel (the print Sarastro and the School of Athens) becomes a moving blackboard on stage – more Picasso in his studio than the wise priest of Isis and Osiris. The sketched Papagena in a flowing skirt (from the print Papagena) appears in a similar elegant dress made of viridian green gauze towards the end of the opera when her character casts off her ugly disguise to join with her mate, Papageno. The black ribbon-like serpent slithering across the drawn baroque stage set from right to left in the print, Stage Set and Serpent, becomes, on the real stage, a shadow projection of a ghostly human arm weaving its way across the backdrop and pursuing Prince Tamino. In addition, if we take Mozart’s opera as an allegory espousing enlightened absolutism, Kentridge’s, The Orbit, print puts forward the contrary idea of a chaotic universe, that of the “star-flaming” Queen of the Night and her expression of irrational-diabolical obscurantism. In this print, Kentridge brings the orbital paths of the universe into play above a flat Johannesburg mining landscape with blackboards or cameras placed low on the horizon.

Three states of the print The Magic Flute, Man and Dove and The Suite of Ten Doves, “The Magic Flute: Doves”, are also associated with the opera. Kentridge presents his own figure as the character of Papageno, Mozart’s bird catcher, in shadow silhouette in the print, Man and Dove. An immense outsized dove, poised and regal like an obscene deity balanced on his shoulder, weighs him down. A second head protrudes from the dove, and phantom wings beat outwards to the upper left picture corner. Carborundum medium is painted over initial drypoint drawing, and burnished back, capturing the rotund breast and the speckled plumpness of the bird to good effect. Two additional doves, one dark, one light, perch on each hand.

Kentridge’s association with the image of the bird continues in another series, The Magic Flute: Doves, in which ten states of a dove are drawn in drypoint and carborundum and printed from one plate. An animated dove is shown in stages of flight, wings outstretched with pentimenti marks from previous states leaving traces of the dove moving through time on the copper. This process of erasure and redrawing makes the dove seem as though it is turning in on itself with wings beating downwards, struggling, trapped within the parameters of the plate. The final state of the series presents a still bird drawn in clean drypoint, the thick carborundum that formed the body of the dove in the inceptive drawing polished out with a burnisher, leaving the history of dramatic motion as a vigorous ground beneath.

The most recent prints in this exhibition are the two Self-portrait states and a suite of five works titled, “L’Inesorabile Avanzata”. Perhaps the only images in the exhibition that reveal a candid image of the artist are the Self-portrait, States IV and V. A middle-aged Kentridge scrutinises himself in the mirror, spectacles balanced on the bridge of the nose, and thinning hair swept back from the temples.

The five works in the “L’Inesorabile Avanzata” suite were commissioned by the Olivetti Foundation and were published over five consecutive weeks in the supplements of the Italian newspaper, Il Sole 24 OreMassacre of the Innocents opens the series with a study of Giotto’s anguished mothers from the Arena Chapel fresco of the New Testament event. This print, and the second and fourth works in the series use an appropriated newspaper format, fragmented to suggest pictures and text columns and interspersed with snippets of imagery. In Newspaper Unread, Kentridge draws his own eye staring out at us, as a witness and chronicler of the events unfolding around him. Cameos of his own gasmask and sextant images, and quotations from Picasso’s weeping women are cropped and scattered throughout the implied blocks of text. The central work in the series, Mal d’Afrika, is a foreboding augury, a gasmask on pylon legs with a wizened old elephant’s eye gazing desolately from behind his goggles to prick our consciences. Kentridge draws comparisons between the atrocities committed in the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia 1935/1936, the inaction of the League of Nations at the time, and our own observance of the genocide currently taking place in Darfur. The series closes with The World, a weary metamorphosis of the gasmask into Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, a classic Kentridge image of a burdened figure in profile, rickety pylon legs striding across the landscape.

David Krut Print Workshop

Kentridge spent several months early in 2002 working as the invited artist-in-residence at Columbia University, New York. During this period, he completed several prints for the university and was a frequent visitor to Galamander Press, Randy Hemminghaus’s workshop in the Chelsea arts district of the city. David Krut Publishing shared premises with Galamander Press at the time and Kentridge was a frequent visitor, proofing and developing the two “Zeno Writing” suites of prints, published by David Krut. After Hemminghaus was appointed master printer for Rutgers University, New Jersey in 2004, David Krut took over the former workshop premises that now function as an exhibition space and a bookstore for David Krut publications and editions. The David Krut Print Workshop is located in Johannesburg South Africa, and runs an active publishing programme with artists from South Africa and abroad.

– Kate McCrickard
Director of David Krut Projects, New York
This text was originally commissioned by Edinburgh Printmakers in 2007 for the exhibition William Kentridge Prints – Published by David Krut, New York.


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