William Kentridge Prints
Until September 8; Edinburgh Printmakers

When William Kentridge was a boy, his awareness of injustices in his homeland of South Africa was felt more deeply than many other whites. At the age of six, he opened a box on his father’s desk and found photographs of the victims of a massacre. His father, a lawyer, played a key role in many late- and post-apartheid trials and inquests, including that of Steven Biko.

Kentridge has lived through the dying throes of apartheid, the recriminations which followed, and South Africa’s continuing social and political problems, not least a raging AIDS epidemic. These dark subjects haunt the artist’s work, whether as explicit subject matter, or as the ghost of a more universal human tragedy which lurks in the shadows.

A variety of artforms weave in and out of each other in Kentridge’s work, none quite separable from the whole. The artist is perhaps best known for his animations, drawn, erased, and redrawn in charcoal, every movement leaving a trace of its own history behind. These films are inseparable from his drawings: dark, acutely observed, often cryptic and sometimes even funny.

Opera, puppetry and theatre design also play large parts in the artist’s repertoire, winning him international acclaim for such productions as Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Kentridge’s theatrical passions in turn knit their way into his films, his drawings, and his prints. While last year’s Glasgow International brought us two of the artist’s recent films, this year Edinburgh Printmakers brings us over 50 Kentridge prints never seen in Scotland before.

The prints cover a range of traditional techniques, used with mastery, great invention, and only the occasional glimpse of colour. Kentridge is a consummate graphic artist whose vision of the world is composed almost entirely of black and white. The opposing forces of light and shadow are profoundly symbolic in his hands, taking in the philosophy of Plato’s cave, the idea of enlightenment, and the mechanics of cinema.

Yet none of this is simply stated. Kentridge said in 1998 that he was interested in “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings”, and this is what you’ll find in Edinburgh Printmakers. Narratives are suggested, characters developed, and cryptic motifs recur. Images fight with their own reflections, or indulge in games of seduction with them. Settings are implied with the greatest economy, and there is always a sense of something happening, heavy with the weight of history.

The Ubu Tells The Truth series contains all of these elements in a powerful suite of eight prints, taking its inspiration from Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play, Ubu Roi, about a grotesque character with a lust for power and a tendency to commit acts of gratuitous cruelty. In 1997, Kentridge staged his own adaptation of Jarry’s play, set in the context of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Before the play came these prints, combining Jarry’s iconic outline drawing of Ubu, all spiral-bellied and cone-headed, with Kentridge’s own fleshy body trapped within. While Jarry’s Ubu is crudely chalked, its fleshy inner being is a masterpiece of etching, the artist’s thumbprints masquerading as the tonal hatching of old-fashioned engraving. This aesthetic tension between Ubu’s two bodies is mirrored in the action, where one appears to be dead, the other alive, or one heads right while the other points angrily left.

One of the set, Act IV Scene 1, depicts the fleshy Ubu in a classic recumbent pose. This image would later reappear in Kentridge’s Sleeper series, with various materials impressed into the ground to create texture and damage across the skin of the sleeping man. These marks are more than modelling: they are the bruises and tyre tracks of abuse, perhaps dating back to those photographs Kentridge saw as a six-year old.

Of the brand new works, L’Inesorabile Avanzata uses Kentridge’s favourite motif of the newspaper, and a sinister gasmask stalking the landscape, to evoke a terrible sense of doom, half-ignored by an unconcerned world.

On a lighter note, Magic Flute: Doves is a series of drypoints shown in their different states, just as Picasso did with bulls 60 years ago. Unlike the bull, Kentridge’s dove is shown in various stages of flight, like individual frames of an animation. This takes his prints into the realm of his “drawings for projection”, where charcoaled pictures are progressively redrawn for the camera.

That comparison with Picasso is no coincidence: Kentridge frequently references the Spanish artist’s graphic work in his prints. A trip to the Dean Gallery’s current show of Picasso’s prints reveals parallels between Kentridge’s Summer Graffiti and Picasso’s 13 etchings of the artist in his studio. The Spaniard’s famous weeping women also put in an appearance. The South African may be less of a household name than Picasso, but his powers of print-making invention put him up there in a similar league.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 29.07.07