22nd February 2006 | Other items by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen
We had a very successful book launch of William Kentridge Prints on Saturday 18 Feb in our gallery and bookstore. William arrived in his signature fedora and white shirt and set to signing books. Jane Taylor, Skye Chair of Dramatic Art at Wits University, was the speaker at the event. She gave an eloquent account of William’s wrestling with “the double imperatives of history and subjectivity, or obligation and freedom” in his long career as a printmaker.
The book has received high praise and we look forward to many reveiws in local and international newspapers.
Excerpt from Jane Taylor’s Speech
… I was struck, when recently I asked William, how he thinks of the activity of print-making. His response was almost immediate. He suggested that it is about getting the hand to lead the brain, rather than letting the brain govern the hand. This radical experimentation with contingency, chance, and the unconscious is, I think, where the prints lead. The early family portrait at Muizenberg beach, a linocut made in 1976, from on old photograph, demonstrates some real continuities with later work, particularly its pleasure in line and the volume of bodily forms. At the same time, this print ties itself to a mimetic function in representational practice. The print refers to the photograph, which captures a particular moment and persons in time. Since that early image, there has been a profound rupture as William has ventured ever further into graphic exhilaration and abandon.
For all of William’s insistence on the priority of practice and substance, this is not a book without ideas. One of its Big Ideas is that Matter Matters. Here William aligns himself with one strand of the history of print. The art print embraces the capacities of the new technology to make multiples, engage with collective distribution and popular audience. These were the principles with which the book fell absolutely in love, and it became the emissary of ideas rather than the encounter with substance. This is what has separated the book, in general terms, from the work of art. Nonetheless, for all of its potential for multiplication, the art print has retained the sensory attention to materiality and medium which are the traditional attributes of art. Some of this is embedded in the print itself: the colours, textures and weight of papers and pigments. However, there is a world of substantial meaning in an art print which arises from the stuff of the printing process, and the almost endless variety of print-making practices, such as the alchemical mystery of the aquatint.
Even a casual encounter with this book suggests William’s energetic experiments in different media and new techniques. He is constantly devouring and being devoured by new languages. At this point I would like to thank David Krut in particular that this meticulously printed book makes so evident the distinct effects of specific techniques. We are struck by the eccentric careless beauty of the sugarlifts (on page 101) or the scratchy reluctance of a drypoint landscape (p 100) or the uncanny complexities of the photogravures which bring soft-edged shadows and sharply scored cuts into a unified visual field, like winter and summer fruits co-mingling in a basket (pages138-141).
William has a distinctively ironic reverence for the masters within the discipline of print-making. This is partly evident in his iconography. (For example, the poignant rhinoceros of Dürer becomes a sentimental motif of late capitalism). That sense of dialogue and debt to the tradition of printmaking is also evident through his technical experiments. Let me illustrate this point. I remember discussing a series of astonishing Rembrandt pieces which we had both seen separately on a recent traveling exhibition of Rembrandt’s prints. Rembrandt would make a plate, say, of a Crucifixion and having pulled a set of prints, as “proofs,” he would return to the same plate, and rework it. This was a process which in some instances spread across substantial periods of time, as the artist sought to extend or alter the meaning inherent in the plate. The Crucifixion which, in its first “state” (the term given to the image that arises from the first test prints pulled as the work evolves) renders a scene bathed in radiant light and transcendence, becomes through obsessive reworking, a scene of gloomy trauma, as slashing streaks pelt the scene with drenching rain. Saskia’s death becomes a presence in the image, so too does Rembrandt’s own bankruptcy. The first notion, “The Crucifixion”, is still the organizing logic of the work, but it is layered over with the accretions of the artist’s life, and his salvation hangs in the balance.
After this encounter with Rembrandt, I remember being delighted at a recent show at Linda Goodman’s. There in a corridor was a series of William’s prints, which were identified as State 0, State 1, State 2, etc, [in the book titled “Copper Notes, States 0-11]. Rembrandt’s “states” arose out of meditations upon a scene, and the evolution of an idea. In William’s prints, by contrast, the plate in each case had been so completely reworked as to effectively obliterate the previous image, setting up a remarkable relationship of randomness, as if the principle of chance was its own necessity. Each image became, as it were, the solution, or resolution of the previous image, even though the relationship between them was manifestly co-incidental, artificially constructed. State O is an image of dimly visible and largely illegible text, and a triangle. State 2 is a coffee cup, which is trapped inside what has become a second triangle, slightly off-centre of the earlier one, with suggestions of a design around the surface of the cup, rendered as childish doodles. State 3 is a telephone, one in the old bakelite style familiar in William’s work, and State 4 is a megaphone. The numbering of the states itself becomes a visual joke, as William scratches out 1, then 2 and 3 and 4. A skull enters the scene at roughly this point, and the final prints in the series figure a self-portrait which becomes obliterated in a compelling set of prints of accumulating depth and darkness (pages 150-153).
The series sets up a dialogue between the random transformation of forms in the first “cycle”, and the progressive evolution of the self in the second. This work suggests the remarkable exploration of Chance As Necessity which has marked so much of William’s production of images: a telephone on the bedside table will become a cat on the pillow, but in a fluid series of transformations that makes that metamorphosis absolutely inevitable.
Perhaps this suggests the complexity of growing up in a country where there was a persistent demand for political engagement. The double imperatives of history and subjectivity, or obligation and freedom, have wrestled throughout William’s work. Perhaps they are implicit in the marvellous pair of dancers we see attempting to steer one another in opposite directions, even though that image names itself “Middle-aged Love” (see page 135).
I would like finally to thank David Krut for his role in pursuing print-making as an art-form, and in particular, for establishing the residency for master-printers such as Randy Hemminghaus, who have been such a significant element in the aesthetic experimentalism of William’s recent productions. At the same time, the documentation and identification of Kentridge’s prints, after their diaspora over the past few decades, has been the result of great imaginative commitment from a community of curators and administrators. Ultimately, though, what one discovers in this publication, is evidence of Kentridge’s sustained conversation with himself, one which we are very pleased to overhear.
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