‘Fantastic printing, pity about the drawings’, William Kentridge

William Kentridge: The launch of the ‘Nose’ (2007 – 2010) series etchings and publication.

William Kentridge, Nose 1, 2007, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.8 x 19.8 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 1, 2007, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.8 x 19.8 cm (David Krut)

William Kentridge supporters braved Johannesburg’s wet weather and the late afternoon traffic to pour into David Krut Bookstore, Arts on Main, in downtown Johannesburg to view his latest ‘Nose’ suite of 30 etchings– and for the launch of the book Nose: Thirty Etchings. The venue was humming as the crowd grew, the conversation and wine flowed, etchings were studied and discussed, books bought and signed. ‘Nose’ is a suite of thirty limited-edition etchings and is the culmination of a four-year collaboration between the artist and David Krut Print Workshop.

William Kentridge, Nose 25 (Bust), 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.8 x 14.8 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 25 (Bust), 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.8 x 14.8 cm (David Krut)

At the launch Kentridge told how the ‘Nose’ etching series arose out of his preparation for the production of the Dmitri Shostakovich opera, The Nose, being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in March this year[1]. Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, published in 1873, is one of the most famous stories in Russian literature. The narrative follows the adventures of a pompous government official who woke up one morning to find that his nose had vanished and gone walking around St Petersburg. Kentridge imagined the adventures of ‘his’ nose taking place during the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Russian avant-garde, and the twentieth century.

William Kentridge, Nose 15, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.9 x 19.9 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 15, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.9 x 19.9 cm

The complete series of nose etchings mounted in sequence on a single expanse of white wall provided the viewer with a sense of the journey of the nose on the loose. The nose roams into the lives of dictators and their victims, transforms itself into a character with erotic fantasies and desires with its own worldview and peculiarities, making for a rare and fantastical adventure. There is fragility in the treatment of particularly the female figures such as Nose 1, a reclining nude with ‘a nose at large’ and Nose 24 (in spite of the blindfold of the latter), and the ballerinas such as ‘Anna Pavlova’ in Nose 15 and ‘Angelina Ballerina’ in Nose 16. The rather charming ‘Nose in Love’, Nose 4, references a tradition of Olympia, from Titian to Manet[2], as Kentridge explains in the text of the book.

William Kentridge, Nose 16, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.9 x 19.9 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 16, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.9 x 19.9 cm (David Krut)

Figures are stripped of their arrogant posturing by masking their faces in, for example, ‘Bad Disguises I’, Nose 11. Some characters are cast as dictators, ‘Bad Disguises II’, Nose 17, referring to the vulnerability of even the most absolute of rulers, as made manifest with the erasure of Trotsky’s face in all instances where he was shown in the company of Lenin. Members of the politburo, Nose 19 (‘beard’ ‘asleep’), Nose 20 and Nose 21, are faceless victims of a tyrannical system and are portrayed with ‘noseless’ faces, blindfolded or with blank (sometimes numbered) circles in the place of a face.

William Kentridge, Nose 17, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.9 x 14.6 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 17, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.9 x 14.6 cm (David Krut)

The errant nose also finds itself in a typical police mug shot (Nose 13) making reference to a police state, and then there is the nose depicted in the guise of the bust of a noble or important person, Nose 25, ‘Yes of Course’, but the much decorated figure seems ominously hooded and shrouded in shame and darkness. Then there is the nose character mounted on a variety of different horses such as Nose 6, Nose 7, Nose 8 and Nose 9. But Kentridge makes a mockery these the characters as they are mounted on scrawny horses ‘ashamed of their horseness’[3].

William Kentridge, Nose 7, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.9 x 14.6 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 7, 2009, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 19.9 x 14.6 cm (David Krut)

With this series Kentridge explores a number of printing techniques and as such the exhibition provides an opportunity to examine what it takes to produce just one etching. To emphasise the importance of the print makers and the collaboration required between artist and printer, Kentridge commended Jillian Ross, Naill Bingham and Mlungisi Kongisa of David Krut Print Workshop for the precision with which the series was printed. Kentridge rather self-deprecatingly remarked that when he first saw the high standard the etchings he thought, ‘Fantastic printing, pity about the drawings’.

 William Kentridge, Nose 9, 2008, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.8 x 19.8 cm

William Kentridge, Nose 9, 2008, from The ‘Nose’ Series, etching, edition size 50, 14.8 x 19.8 cm (David Krut)

The nose series of etchings is in keeping with many of the themes that Kentridge typically explores and he employs familiar iconography and visual language. There can be no doubt that the works are skilfully executed, with a delicacy of line, with  humour and satire –  and in a range of tones ranging from black to muted shades of grey, interposed with red in some instances. Kentridge may well be reworking old themes but, in my view, there is a freshness and sensitivity contained in this series – and that the drawings are enhanced, not upstaged, by the skill of the print makers.


[1]Information pertaining to the opera production, The Nose, as well as the technicalities of print making relies heavily on David Krut’s publicity material and the publication Nose: Thirty Etchings (2010), edited by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen.

[2]Law-Viljoen, B (2010) Nose: Thirty Etchings

[3] As above

[4] Law-Viljoen,B (2010) Nose: Thirty Etchings

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