LaM Museum opens a major retrospective devoted to William Kentridge

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LaM Museum opens a major retrospective devoted to William Kentridge
Installation view.

LILLE.- The LaM is beginning 2020 with a major retrospective devoted to William Kentridge, the first such exhibition on this scale organised by a French museum. Conceived in close collaboration with the artist and the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the exhibition occupies half the museum’s surface area and present previously unseen works never exhibited in Europe (from the artist’s very first drawings to his latest work).

South African artist, William Kentridge has gained international recognition as one of the greatest creators of his generation. One of the last thirsty years’ most prolific artists, he explores each medium with consummate skill, including drawing, engraving, sculpture, tapestry, animated film, performance and video installation. His interest in the theatre has led him to build bridges between the visual arts, cinema and the performing arts, making him a master in staging and moving images. His abundant body of work provides a vision that is both poetic and critical of such highly complex subjects as colonisation, apartheid, political conflicts and Africa’s role in the First World War.

In October 2019 William Kentridge received the Praemium Imperiale, one of the most prestigious prizes in the field of the arts and culture, awarded by Japan’s imperial family.

Born in Johannesburg in 1955, into a family of lawyers closely involved in the fight against apartheid, Kentridge started off studying political science before turning to the study of art. In 1981, he moved to Paris for a year, where he enrolled in drama and mime classes at the École Jacques Lecoq. After a stint as television assistant, he returned to South Africa and turned his attention to drawing and animated film.

From the outset, Kentridge has explored the human condition, with migration and displacement as particular focuses. The sets designed for the play Sophiatown (1986-1989) and a documentary film will serve to introduce visitors to his transdisciplinary approach to creation. The play, which resulted from his collaboration with the Junction Avenue Theatre Company of which he was a co-founder, stages the forced evacuation and demolition of Sophiatown, a black neighbourhood in Johannesburg, in the late 1950s. This series of drawings has never been exhibited in its totality in Europe.

William Kentridge made Vetkoek / Fête Galante, one of his first animated films, in 1985. He developed a cinematographic technique he calls “poor man’s animation”, composed of photographs of charcoal drawings and collages. He went on to perfect the principle in a series of films entitled Drawings for Projection (started in 1989). Filmed with a 35mm camera, the animated episodes feature two characters, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum, who are the artist’s alter-egos.

A more recent series of experimental films, Drawing Lessons (started in 2009), presents Kentridge in his studio. Short sequences illustrate the humorous way he approaches the essential question of the creative process. In original and ironic fashion, he rehabilitates the mythical place of creation and the relationship between artist and sitter, splitting himself in two and using himself as his subject.

This exhibition offers the first opportunity to connect Kentridge’s body of work to the history of art (Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, etc.).
A selection of Kentridge’s artistic sources are being presented: Georges Méliès’ films, which inspired 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon (2003), along with Ubu, the grotesque character invented by Alfred Jarry, who makes a return appearance in Ubu Tells the Truth (1997). The installation O Sentimental Machine (2015) re-creates the closed area of a hotel lobby, directly inspired by archival films of Bolshevik parades and an unseen speech by Trotsky, combined with a humorous piece of fiction about his secretary Evgenia Shelepina.

Kentridge’s satire is never gratuitous; it is based on a keen awareness of history and its blemishes, which the artist approaches from an angle that makes them universal and timeless.

The Head & The Load is one of Kentridge’s most spectacular works. First presented in 2018 at London’s Tate Modern, it was created in the context of the centenary of the First World War and focuses on the little-known role that Africa played in the conflict. It is a theatrical work that combines African song and European opera in spectacular fashion to tell the story of the colonial powers’ behaviour in Africa. The Head & The Load provides a striking synthesis of Kentridge’s work, impressive in form, ambitious in purpose and accessible to the widest possible audience.

Several other emblematic works in the exhibition provide further explore its general themes: migration, displacement and procession, essential subjects in Kentridge’s body of work, initiated by the video Shadow Procession (1999) and later developed in Triumphs and Laments (2016).

A final fundamental theme is also tackled: time and history. The monumental installation The Refusal of Time (2012) is total spectacle combining music, dance, song and video, created in close collaboration with the composer Philip Miller and the science historian Peter Galison. While conjuring up personal memories of childhood, Kentridge examines the haphazard notion of time.

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