Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Taking the World by Drawing: William Kentridge and Animation

In the space of about ten years, William Kentridge has moved from exotic outsider to center-stage.  His MoMA/Met double billing is unprecedented (David Hockney’s Met/ Met moments didn’t overlap).  It is a measure of Kentridge’s star effect that when people spoke of The Nose, the usual hierarchy was inverted: it was a Kentridge event; then, a meditation on the proto-Surrealism of Gogol; and only lastly the overdue New York premiere of an opera from the youthful genius of Shostakovich.

William Kentridge, Drawing for the film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old [Soho and Mrs. Eckstein in Pool], 1991. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 47-1/4 x 59 inches.  Collection of the artist © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist

William Kentridge, Drawing for the film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old [Soho and Mrs. Eckstein in Pool, 1991. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 47-1/4 x 59 inches. Collection of the artist © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist”

So many intelligent critics and journalists have written about Kentridge, and he is himself so graciously articulate about the meanings and non-meanings of his work, that there might seem little left to discuss.  But the fine retrospective at MoMA provides an opportunity to re-examine the consensus surrounding his work.  For one thing, the seal of approval on Kentridge’s political bona fides, despite his embrace of the personal, the cryptic and the absurd, is a little too easy, and we might ask ourselves: what would be left of Kentridge’s great force if we decided he really wasn’t political, that he only played to an expedient degree with political forms?  This is not to question his sincerity, but rather our own.

Opinions do diverge, sometimes drastically, about Kentridge’s worth as a draftsman, and at MoMA we could consider side by side the merits of a range of nuanced, masterful prints, self-contained drawings, and far cruder drawings for film.  Or, call them drawings as film, jumping ahead to the decisive novelty of Kentridge’s work, and here  an intriguing question arises as to where to locate his sequential, continuous drawing practice within the eye-popping history of drawn animation.  A little research suggests he gets credit for reinventing the wheel, and maybe not nearly enough for repairing it with spit and glue, and getting down the road.

Politics first.  There is no doubt that Kentridge voiced outrage in the form of blunt caricature against the cruelties and absurdities of everyday life under apartheid and its miserable aftermath.  Mine, for example, made three years before Mandela’s 1994 election, connects the dots of capitalism and colonial exploitation with urgent ridicule.  Monument, in 1990, displayed the literal shackles at the base of the apartheid pyramid scheme.  The march of silhouetted refugees in 1999’s Shadow Procession is scored to a rousing people’s anthem of African folk music that functions elegiacally, but unconquerably –– much like “Red River Valley” at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.  (More on Kentridge’s vivid sound design later.)  I don’t have a clear picture of how these works were first shown and to whom –– how participatory they were, or how risky it was for a white artist thus to protest state violence; later, perhaps, state neglect –– but people have been blacklisted, jailed and disappeared for less.  If not outright agitprop, Kentridge’s films are a long way from head-in-the-sand “bourgeois formalism” (Shostakovich’s counter-revolutionary sin, according to Stalinist bullying).

The films go deep, moreover, because Kentridge implicates himself in order to redeem us all; he conducts, one might say, his own Truth Commission.  Though we are told again and again of Kentridge’s heroically anti-apartheid lawyer parents, we are less often reminded that generations of what was once the Kantorowitz family from Lithuania have been very prominent insiders of government and commerce in a brazenly racist state.  Kentridge’s choice of Ashkenazic surnames for his recurring protagonists, Eckstein and Teitelbaum, tells this truth emphatically, chafing at an anti-Semitic stereotype by the desperate measure of exploiting it.  Soho Eckstein has “bought half of” Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989).  He loves only numbers, money.  In Mine he casts gold ingots from the flesh of the masses.  In Stereoscope (1998-99), Soho is more reflective, and sees how blue lines of implication reach from his antique office machinery to beatings, tortures, murders, bombings, and environmental wastage.  His striped suit pockets overflow with the wages of his sins to flood the world.  That apartheid and its multiple miseries are laid at the door of a Jewish industrialist has provoked strangely scant attention.  Could this bloodletting be requisite to the resounding international acceptance of Kentridge’s work?  Do Kara Walker’s far more elegantly brutal transgressions serve a related purpose?  In different ways, you could say they prime the art culture’s guilt-trip rinse cycle –– a bit of a dirty job, but it all comes out in the wash, messier than when it went in, precisely as planned.

Henceforth, Kentridge gets a free pass to cultivate his garden with tangled meanings.  In fact, it would take pages, not the usual two-sentence summation, to catalogue the stream-of-charcoal convolutions of a Kentridge film.  The consensus seems to be that the later films are political art in the best sense, more rueful than actionable interweavings of obsession and observation, history and fiction. By working as cryptic elegies, apolitically political, they make even the edgiest art-world cynics feel better about themselves.  You could call this a legitimate instance of the healing powers of art.  Or, you could call it wishful thinking.

still from William Kentridge's 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003. 16mm and 35mm films transferred to seven-channel video (black and white, silent).
still from William Kentridge's 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003. 16mm and 35mm films transferred to seven-channel video (black and white, silent).

Kentridge the shamanic humanist, or Kentridge the Gogolian satirist; either way, he will take the world by drawing.  As for how he draws, it is as resourcefully old-fashioned as the what and why.  Kentridge assumes the prerogative of an expressionist tradition that begins with unfinishable Michelangelo meltdowns, goes through Goya’s séances and Daumier’s distillations, explodes with Picasso, takes a left turn at Kollwitz’s anguish and Grosz’s speediness, burns intensely with Guston’s and Giacometti’s doubt, and thereafter fizzles into a thousand points of self-consciousness.  Kentridge has said, with equal measures of humility and hubris, that “even if quaintness was the price one paid,” he would pick this dropped fruit off the ground.  He does come away with the pith, if less often the flesh, of what the experimental-existential tradition is all about –– keeping things dangerously open in order to catch a vision, then clamping down like a steel trap.  It needn’t be pretty.  It might be gorgeous.  It must be real.

Before seeing the show, I had the opinion that Kentridge’s stubborn, insistent manner could at best be called stolid.  But I was mostly aware of his film drawings, whereas the balance point between skill, risk, and habit adjusts with graphic mode.  His marvelous large drawing of a skewered globe striding forth on electrical-tower legs projects confident savvy, part Grandville, part Disasters of War.  Two prints of a nude man with a megaphone have a fascinating texture and a sense of exactitude in motion.  Now comes the controversy over his ability, for the megaphone prints were hung next to a related drawing that actually is in motion, the ending state of a scene from Stereoscope.  Here the megaphone man is sketchier (though more well-rehearsed than Kentridge’s usual film figures), while the landscape around him is typically hurried, provisional, and uninflected –– to the point that Ben Katchor’s abject cartoon noir, which it resembles, puts it to shame for competence.  Kentridge’s graphic powers, when he focuses them in a single slice, are formidable; the drawings from films are best seen as artifacts that once had a job to do (and a smaller proportion of these would have sufficed.  Is a Tim Burton/ Pixar mindset taking hold at MoMA?)

It is no insult to call the film drawings unimpressive as drawings per se, so long as we properly appreciate what their two-fisted job really is: to reclaim animation from technical perfectionism, arrested development, gee-whiz ingenuity, and artiness.  In this they succeed, by returning us to the moment before Modernist imagism and film moved to distant neighborhoods.

The early history of motion pictures, indeed its pre-history in zoetropes, praxinoscopes and the like, is inseparable from sequential drawing.  It was natural that outer-circle followers of Kandinsky should experiment in the 1920’s with pure spirit-matter in motion, but the paradox is that the great accomplishments in art animation always seem to come from visionary innocents like Oskar Fischinger or Norman McLaren, complete originals who epitomize experimental animation’s wary distance from avant-garde polemics.  From the 1930’s until their deaths in 1967 and 1987, respectively, Fischinger and McLaren made brilliant time-based essays in hand-me-down geometric abstraction that seems eager to please and delight rather than to transcend.  To be sure, there is a mismatch of artistic temperament between the dogged, do-it-yourself ingenuity of animation, on the one hand, and on the other, the empirical and psychic friction by which Kandinsky and Malevich, Mondrian and Miró pared down their hard-ass idioms.  But it goes deeper than matters of taste: fundamentally, the smooth, cool glide of the moving image is antagonistic to the willful autonomy of drawing and painting.  Movement is at cross purposes to eternity.

still from Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker's animation, Le Nez (The Nose), 1963
still from Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker's animation, Le Nez (The Nose), 1963

Without understanding this antagonism, and its history, we can appreciate neither Kentridge’s accomplishment nor his limitations.  Only an absurdly foreshortened sketch is possible here of animation’s lineage of great draftsmanship, so let’s just say that between Winsor McCay and The Secret of Kells, a million professionally excellent drawings have been made whose duty is bound fore and aft, a link in a chain; while in experimental art animation, drawing has taken on broader freedoms, borrowed from the Modernist demolition of conventional notions of finish.  Fischinger, McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff and Clair Parker, Lotte Reininger, Len Lye, Harry Smith, Yuriy Norshteyn, Faith and John Hubley, Jules Engel, Caroline Leaf, Kathy Rose, Dennis Pies, George Griffin, and Paul Glabicki, all pushed the pipe dream of the moving drawing into astonishing territory.  Numerous works could be cited as technical precursors to Kentridge’s continuous drawing and erasure, in particular Fischinger’s glorious 1943 Motion Painting #1, a painting on glass frame-by-framed over six months; Alexeieff and Parker’s 1963 pinscreen masterpiece The Nose (yes, that Nose), a haunting graphic novel with the texture of a moving mezzotint; and Leaf’s The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, 1973, also a “motion painting” on glass, devastatingly melancholic.  These great films and many more whose technique is farther afield (not excluding wonders in solid and computer animation) would be well worth comparing in detail with Kentridge’s work on another occasion.  For now we can say that Kentridge’s mise-en-scène is static and jagged compared to the fluid metamorphosis achieved by masters of continuous imagery.  But Kentridge is less concerned with fluidity, and more with the autonomous integrity of the drawing process, in which visual form leads, rather than follows, narrative function.

Imagine Michelangelo or Goya taking on animated sequences –– nudes turning sculpturally in space, figures hatching from void: mind-blowing, certainly, but only insofar as their eagle-eyed opportunism was suppressed, made to yield to their inner Disney. What we truly value in their work, to the contrary, is how they fuse depth and still movement.  How they transform the multiverse into a singularity.  For Goya to be Goya, each flicker of light must contradict the past and alter the future.

Henri Bergson, philosopher of time for the dawn of cinema, warned repeatedly about picturing the future as a reel of film that waits to unspool; time as dimension was an illusion we succumbed to, implying fate, blocking us from the experience of creation as something new and unpredictable at every moment.  Great works of painting and drawing get at this truth by condensing existence into a refracting diamond of gestalt.  What they refuse to do is be constrained by external “fates,” fore and aft. (A sequential lithograph of a bull by Picasso, concurrently on display at MoMA, proves the rule; the 14 states morph too ferociously to animate.)

Installation view of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2009 (SFMOMA, 2009, Photo by Ian Reeves.)
Installation view of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2009 (SFMOMA, 2009, Photo by Ian Reeves.)

Kentridge embraces crudeness with confident pragmatism in order to split the difference, as no one has before, between drawing as tough-minded singularity, yet also as the sequential driver of cinematic experience.  It is precisely crudeness that animation cannot abide; if it appears at all, it tends to transmute into affectation, a cartoon of art –– either as parody or, alas, with the best of intentions.  Kentridge’s films can accommodate a refreshing degree of impulsiveness of drawing without turning, on the other hand, into flickering anarchy for connoisseurs of the phenomenological (for an extreme case, see Stan Brakhage’s feral take on animation in The Dante Quartet), and this is because continuous drawing is but one technique for impelling a Kentridge film forward.  Little has been written about the integral contributions of montage and sound to Kentridge’s cinematic oeuvre, but his opportune collaborations with Angus Gibson and Catherine Meyburg as editors and William Schübel as sound designer ought to be fully credited for their share in the dramatic intensity, mystery, and rhythm of the films, indeed with their structural logic.  Tide Table, for example, is a complex mosaic, but intercut from a mere 8 or 10 metamorphic drawings.   Certain kinds of transitions are built into the sequences, and often Kentridge ports motifs from scene to scene with montage aforethought, but the rest is splicing; it’s the combination that twists the narrative kaleidoscope into mesmerizing, if somewhat dutiful, cinema.  As for sound, it delineates cinematic mood the way smell distinguishes the taste of onions from strawberries.  Kentridge makes lavish, theatrical use of sound effects and music: water splashing, paper crinkling, maudlin string quartet (from composer Phillip Miller), crackly Caruso records, pencil-scrape, trolley bell.  By aural design we are transported into his imagery like lambs to the slaughter.

Kentridge calls what he does “stone age” technology, but maybe we should call it “golden age.”  His 7 Fragments for George Méliès (2003) revisits an ancestral state of grace, where all moving images were magical.  Now, thanks in no small part to Kentridge’s efforts, that lost potential has been, if you will, reanimated –– not just in Burbank and at the National Film Board of Canada, but in Chelsea and Basel too, with plenty more in the pipeline from MacPros in grad schools across the globe.  Kentridge continues leading the charge with his geeky side –– it was already there in Shadow Procession’s articulated cutouts, but now witness the crackerjack animatronics of his Magic Flute black boxes –– so perhaps we can expect him to contend one day with the myriad ingenuities of McLaren, Fischinger, et al., as he has done Méliès.  Likewise, his metamorphic drawing powers grow in ambition.  In Tide Table, feet walk with the chewy graphic fiber of a moving woodcut across a panning collage of newspapers, and figures flinging stones stand out for their fluid disposition of mass –– maybe achieved via Muybridge or rotoscope, and why not?  Only a mannerism of the rough-hewn would prevent Kentridge from reaching for more moments of expertise like these.