Over the years, William Kentridge has earned acclaim for his distinct style of animation that employs filmmaking, printmaking, drawing and theatre. Although best known in the art world as an animator, his art takes on weighty political and existential issues, focusing in particular on the fraught history of his native South Africa. The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” on view through May 17, captures the full arc of his extensive oeuvre, featuring more than 120 works in a range of media that spans three decades.
From a series of works inspired by Ubu Rex, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 satirical play Ubu Roi, to his recent Metropolitan Opera productionof Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose based on Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist story, “Five Themes” offers irrefutable evidence of the artist’s scope and deftness. While the show’s third section, “Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio”—composed of nine films starring Kentridge as artist-cum-sorcerer bringing his materials to life with the wave of a hand—can seem like an embarrassing departure from an otherwise coherent presentation, the most successful works engage directly with the corrosive pall of apartheid. 1997’s Ubu Tells the Truth is accompanied by a suite of etchings that address the hearings established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, where the victims of apartheid confronted its perpetrators. The powerful and visceral Shadow Procession, from 1999, shows Kentridge first employing his signature techniques of shadow theatre and jointed figures.
The strength of Kentridge’s work comes through most in the section titled “Thick Time: Soho and Felix,” which features his best-known fictional characters—Soho Eckstein, a wealthy industrialist, and his alter-ego Felix Teitelbaum—in the animated series 9 Drawings for Projection. 1996’s History of the Main Complaint, the sixth of the series, was screened at Documenta the following year and set Kentridge on the path to international recognition. By situating characters in the waning years of apartheid, Kentridge teases out the tensions of contemporary South Africa, and through the narrative of his troubled actors, Kentridge probes his own place within it.
Conceived without script or storyboard, the magic of Kentridge’s art plays out in the painstaking process of his continual charcoal marks and erasures, which endow his figures with the illusion of motion but keep the trace of the artist’s hand. These enthralling effects take on a different form in the section “Sarastro and the Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute.” Perhaps the most visually opulent and aurally stentorian component of the retrospective, it features two puppet-theatre film installations inspired by Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute in Belgium in 2005. Shifting between black-and-white vintage film images of white hunters and eerie mechanized puppets, Kentridge recasts the dark shadow of colonialism onto the opera’s theme of the 18th century Enlightenment. The overall effect is a convergence of politics and poetics, without slippage into artificial theatricality. Kentridge’s core strength is his ability to transcend time and connect with the urgencies of today.