William Kentridge was a failure. By his own account, the South African artist racked up a long list of impressive defeats before succeeding as a draftsman and animator. Before the opening of his current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art Kentridge gave a lecture on “Drawing Lessons” at the New York Studio School.
He began his university career studying to be a painter. But, Kentridge says, “I was a very bad painter.” He recalls worrying “Does it look nice?” each time he would finish a canvas. “There are so many other things you should be thinking about,” Kentridge says. Instead of working in oil paint, which he had set out to do, he began making charcoal drawings.
Discouraged as a painter, he moved to Paris to study acting. But he wasn’t any better at acting than painting, he says. After a year in Paris, he came to terms with his limitations and was still enamored of characters, movement and the dramatic element of time unfolding. He went back to South Africa to be a filmmaker.
But working as an art director for movies, which he characterized as “borrowing friends’ furniture,” he came to another dead end. “The film industry was so awful that I looked for any way of not being there.”
After having failed as a painter, as an actor, and as a filmmaker, Kentridge came to a conclusion. “I was reduced to being an artist,” he says with a wry smile.
After failing at what he intended to do, Kentridge says, “There’s a sense of annihilation and not just disappointment. In the end, the work that emerges is who you are.”
What evolved over the years he had experimented with these various mediums was Kentridge’s particular blend of drawing, film and performance. He says acting in particular taught him a lot about drawing, and, over time, performing became a hallmark of his work.
In the 1980s, Kentridge began animating his drawings in an untraditional way. Usually, animation is done by drawing sequential cells on different pieces of paper, yielding a clean and distinct movement on screen. Instead, Kentridge used one sheet of paper per scene and animated his drawings by erasing and redrawing each successive movement on the same sheet of paper. Left behind on screen was his erasure of each previous charcoal drawing, a light gray trail of where his figures had been.
“I could not make good erasures,” he says. He tried every kind of eraser he could, but the residue of his process remained. At first he apologized for the messy look of his animations, but he eventually came to realize his process was integral to the work.
“In the process of making, a meaning will emerge,” William Kentridge says. The big themes connected with his art — time, change and the legacy of the past — came organically through trial and error and a spirit of playful openness. Instead of just executing an idea from beginning to end, he’s interested in “finding strategies of working that can enable an answer to come out of the work itself.”
During his talk at the Studio School, Kentridge showed a video from rehearsals for his staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Rehearsal for one scene begins with characters walking quickly across a stage. In the next take, Kentridge asks them to march in unison. It looks tighter, stronger and machine-like. It invokes a symbolic army. Then, in the next take, Kentridge has them do a syncopated shuffle step where the actors swing out their legs and dip in unison. It’s evocative of fascist armies marching but also jazz music and dancing. It suddenly seems more complex, suggestive and open to interpretation. This became the final staging of the scene.
Kentridge describes the process as “finding things that are in one sense unrelated but using them to construct moments within them that have a sense and a coherence.” The challenge is to understand metaphor not as a meaning (“this means that”) but as a “strategy for making meaning.” For William Kentridge, the process involves trying until you fail — and then trying more.
Quoting Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, Kentridge gave this advice: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
William Kentridge: Five Themes is at the Museum of Modern Art through May 17.