The UK’s first exhibition of prints by South African artist William Kentridge opens at The Bluecoat this week, reports Laura Davis
GIVEN the level of international recognition for his work it is surprising that William Kentridge did not slip easily into the role of an artist. The son of a leading defence lawyer, he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor before eventually settling into the profession for which he has become so well known.
Those familiar with his work will know that he never truly left the theatre behind – his imaginative opera productions include the New York Met’s version of Shostakovich’s The Nose, while last year a two-week festival of his productions took place in his home city of Johannesburg.
Behind these creations, and behind his well known animations, is a solid printmaking practice – yet this side of his work is often overlooked.
Tomorrow, the first UK exhibition to focus solely on Kentridge’s printmaking will open at The Bluecoat. A Hayward Touring show, it has been curated by the London gallery and will go on to visit venues across the country next year.
It will include 100 prints made between 1988 and the present, in a range of media and scale, from intimate etchings and drypoints to linocuts measuring 2.5m high.
Although Kentridge, 57, is usually considered to be a political artist – his work includes a cycle of films that allegorise South Africa’s political upheaval – it is a title he resists.
Growing up as the son of Sidney Kentridge, who, among prominent cases, represented the family of Black Consciousness Movement founder Stephen Biko after he died in police custody in 1977, it was inevitable that he would become politicised.
“He doesn’t consider himself a political artist,” says Hayward Touring assistant curator Chelsea Pettitt.
“Other people may disagree with him.
“He’s obviously quite modest in his character so he wouldn’t sit there and say he uses art to fight but he did grow up in an atmosphere where people he was surrounded by all had a strong voice against the Apartheid government so he does share that same attitude towards integration.
“He has been quoted saying Johannesburg is in everything that he does and his characters, who are very often amoral or ugly, I do think represent certain people perhaps high up in the Apartheid government, but he wouldn’t that specifically, absolutely not.”
Kentridge studied politics and African Studies at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand before deciding to follow a career in art. In between, he spent some time in Paris exploring the idea of becoming an actor because, as Pettitt explains, “He didn’t really know if he had a right to be an artist, he didn’t know if he had anything to say.”
On his return to South Africa. he enrolled in Johannesburg Art Foundation, a non-segregation institution.
“He was working with black and white students,” says the curator.
“That really opened his eyes because his father had been fighting for something like that his whole younger life.” It was here that he decided printmaking was the most suitable medium for his own expression.
The Bluecoat’s exhibition includes several early posters that, unusually for Kentridge, are printed in colour.
“He actually decided that he was sort of afraid of the colour, that colour was distracting, so as time’s gone on he’s very much limited himself to black and white monochromatic line drawings,” says Pettitt.
Those already familiar with his animations will recognise many of the same characters, such as Telephone Lady, Pylon Man and Ubu, while some of the prints feature in other pieces of work – for example, The Nose was part of the backdrop to his collaboration for the Met Opera.
Kentridge was adamant certain pieces should be included in the exhibition: Thinking Aloud, which he drew without thinking as a way of representing thinking aloud on paper, and Eight Figures, a procession of unusual characters printed on the pages of a book.
Visitors following the exhibition round will be able to study how his style has shifted over the past 30 years.
“His early charcoal drawings were very free because he could erase and draw on top of them again then throughout the middle of his career he tended to refine things for the etching plate,” says Pettitt.
“Lately, he has been experimenting with a combination of techniques – collage, ripping and shredding of paper, reusing old books.”
A UNIVERSAL ARCHIVE: William Kentridge as Printmaker is at The Bluecoat from tomorrow until February 3, 2013. Three of his animations are on display at Tate Liverpool in the Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change exhibition.