Has William Kentridge gone ‘Huisgenoot’?

There I was in the company of good friends enjoying Johannesburg’s glorious weather and settling in for a leisurely lunch at a Greek eating establishment. Then out of the blue my good friend, a strategic branding and advertising guru, posed the following question: ‘Do you think that William Kentridge has gone ‘Huisgenoot’?[1]

I just about got whiplash as I turned to face said friend and gasped, ‘What? William Kentridge and Huisgenoot in the same sentence?’

Now, I do need to explain that I consider this friend to be a cultured man with a good knowledge of art, music and other art forms. Not to mention that he has a small but enviable art collection including much treasured works by William Kentridge, the kind that are loaned to local and international galleries for important exhibitions. He acquired these works in the early nineties, way before the rest of the pack began to jump on the bandwagon.

William Kentridge, Preparing the flute iv

William Kentridge, Preparing the flute iv (Goodman Gallery)

What my friend really wanted to know was whether I thought that Kentridge, one of South Africa’s most distinguished artists, is churning out too many limited editions such as the series produced for the Magic Flute and The Nose opera. Did I think that these works were being sold for excessively hefty prices – and would these prints adversely affect the long term value of his art?

William Kentridge, Preparing the flute v

William Kentridge, Preparing the flute v (Goodman Gallery)

We dwelled on the question for a short while before the conversation veered in multiple directions, but it left me thinking about Kentridge and my response to his art. Kentridge’s artistic output is considerable, he has been practicing as an artist since the 1970s and he is an artist of international standing. His large volume of work includes his signature charcoal (and pastel) drawings, which he has also innovatively translated into a range of other art forms including animated, films, videos and theatre pieces.

William Kentridge, Magic flute (Goodman Gallery)

He is also renowned for his extraordinary ‘work in progress’ projects and artistic productions, mostly collaborative works which he presents to the art community as the works evolve, creating the impression that we the viewer somehow participated in the process. Most notable are his collaborations with opera productions, for example, his designs for the staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute. With this opera Kentridge captivated his audience with the marriage of drawing and music to create an awe-inspiring visual interpretation the famous opera – so much so that the visual effects and animation at times detracted from the singers’ performances on stage. The Nose, based on a well-known story in Russian literature by Nilolai’s Gogol, set to Dmitri Shostakovich music score, is scheduled for a New York opening in March this year. He is also known for his collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company with whom he has crafted multimedia performances with puppets.

William Kentridge, What has come ... has already come, 2008, (Goodman Gallery)

Continuing to ponder the provocative question, I allowed a medley of his artworks to flash through my mind, reminiscent of one of his artistic video’s, but hardly as proficient. From time to time I mentally pressed the pause button to reflect on works that have made an indelible impression on me. I remember the impact of Kentridge’s Black Box/Chambre Noir (2006) with his unique interpretation of the darker implications of colonialism. The work was shown at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and consists of animated films, sculptural objects drawings and a mechanised miniature theatre. And then there was the innovative What will Come…has already Come,  an exhibition held at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg in November and December 2008.

I recollected the screening of his animated videos, The Soho Eckstein series (1989) and Felix in Exile (1994) and, in the courtyard of the old Fort prison, now incorporated into the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, Kentridge’s Johannesburg, Second Greatest City After Paris (1989). It was truly extraordinary to view these works in a space so symbolic of the injustices of the past.

I recalled a late afternoon visit to Los Angeles’ MOCA in 2008 after an emotionally draining and exhausting day. The gallery’s cool white space seemed like a refuge and a treasure trove of what was for me many undiscovered artists. I worked my way through the gallery, looking at one work, then another, then returning for one more look at a work that had caught my attention. Then I peeked into a room and instantly recognised the work as that of Kentridge. For a brief moment I considered moving on as I can view this artist’s work in my own country. But by then I had been drawn in by, Learning the Flute 2003, a 35mm film transferred to video, blackboard and easel. Typical of Kentridge’s work it is political in nature and as stated on the caption it ‘explores the contradictions and uncertain endings in art as in politics’.

Kentridge’s success to a large extent rests on his ability to innovatively integrate the personal and the political in his work. In my view one of his greatest achievements is that his signature work is so recognisable yet, just when one thinks he has done it all and exhausted his oeuvre, he serves up work with a new twist, a surprise, a clever manipulation of a concept, his artistic medium or the mind – always pushing boundaries. This applies as much to Five Tapestries created together with Marguerite Stevens weaving studio, shown at Goodman Gallery’s at Arts on Main in downtown Johannesburg, as it does to the collaborative sculpture created in conjunction with Gerhard Marx, Fire Walker (2009) that I first saw at Nirox Sculpture Park last year. A larger, ten meters high, version of this work has become a landmark public sculpture in the city of Johannesburg.

William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, Fire Walker, 2009, painted steel Edition 1/4 370 x 175 x 204

William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, Fire Walker, 2009, painted steel Edition 1/4 370 x 175 x 204

How many times have I fantasised about owning just a small piece of the magic and longingly stared at one or more of his works at an exhibition. I have rifled through prints in galleries and on the internet in the hope of finding that one work that I love more than all the others – and that I can actually afford. So for my part I am grateful that Kentridge produces limited edition prints, monotypes and etchings, so that people like me can set their sights on owning such a work. His work may well be pricey and remain out of reach for many, but in reality his individually made and signed editioned etchings rarely exceed 50 prints – and are intended for both the local and international art markets. Yet, I have come across Kentridge artworks, often a single work taken from a series, that to my mind do not seem to warrant the asking price.

Does this mean that dealers and galleries – and the artist himself – are profiting excessively from his success? Bear in mind that art dealers ask what they think buyers are prepared to pay for an artist. Prices fetched at auction are conventionally considered a true reflection of the commercial value of an artist’s work. And remember that by the time a work goes on auction it is the owner of the painting or artwork, not the artist, who benefits from the sale.

The reality is that, apart from all its other attributes, art is also an investment, another commodity for which there is a market, a buyer and a seller. Kentridge’s artistic output sells for top dollar because his work is in demand and because he is critically acclaimed.

Do limited edition prints by an artist detract from the value of his or her ‘major’ works? I would argue that if there is a flood of prints on the market, the prints may not significantly increase in value, but that it will not necessarily affect the investment value of important works, providing the artist’s work remains in demand.

It would seem that it is the dilemma of the highly successful and prolific artist that a large volume of work, fame and fortune will fuel debate as to whether he or she – or art dealers – is taking advantage of their marketability and gone mass market.

I only wish that I had the foresight of my clever friend to have bought one of Kentridge’s works before his commercial success became a matter for debate.

[1] Huisgenoot is the leading mass market Afrikaans language weekly, a general interest publication with the highest magazine circulation in South Africa.


About marvellousartmusings

Marvellous Art Musings interactively muses on a personal journey in the field of twentieth century and contemporary South African art, and showcases the vibrant South African art scene and more ... Marvellous Art provides art consulting, curating and writing services
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10 Responses to Has William Kentridge gone ‘Huisgenoot’?

  1. WT says:

    Esteemed 3M,
    Love his work myself – actually in the early 90’s, was honoured to be in the same ambit as William, enabling me to observe him in action on a commercial A-V project we were shooting for which he developed a unique charcoal drawing animated sequence.

    Generally your blogs are enabling me to assume the sophisticated and erudite air of a knowledgeable pundit in SA’n art, impressing all but the most genuinely art-savvy crowd as I casually drape my apparent intimate gleanings of latest developments and exhibitions in this field across the back of my conversational chair. Your blogs are truly engrossing, stimulating, and informative. Please keep it up: personal fascination aside, my social standing couldnt take any cessation from the truly valuable resource you are providing. Art Forever(,) Yours.


  2. JRW says:

    Loved the article. Cant wait for more.


  3. Pingback: Musing on some of my favourite art events in 2009 | Marvellous Art Musings

  4. andresc says:

    I’ve been hearing many versions of this question over the last year or so. I think the piece touches on an interesting topic around how the merit of a body of work as opposed to the merit of individual works come to play at a certain threshold of ‘success’ for laxck of a better word – how the aura of the artist as spectacle begins to precede their ‘works’ – can individual works of of realy succesfull artist still be sucseful divorced from their author? Does it matter?


    • Dear Andresc, You raise a very important point as to whether the ‘famous’ artist and his work can ever be separated once its seems that the name is overshadowing the artistic output. It is also fascinating how works of art are relegated to storerooms as unimportant until attributed to a major artist. To what extent can the artwork speak for itself …?


  5. andresc says:

    ‘To what extent can the artwork speak for itself …?’
    … that depends on the beholder.

    The question has been intriguing me recently. Forgive me if this becomes a little verbose or muddled, however I’d like to take the opportunity/liberty to I meander through some of what it raises for me.

    Assuming that by ‘speak for itself’ we mean something like ‘contain and sustain its own artistic merit’. Even if it is possible to isolate the artwork from the artist, you are still stuck with the subjectivity of the beholder. Maybe that is beside the point, however, I wonder if the idea of the artwork’s independent merit isn’t – in a slightly twisted way – a remnant of the Romantic paradigm and that we are seeing its demise.

    If I were a scholar of the arts, I might hypothesize that when viewing changes of aesthetic evaluation through a cultural-historic perspective, there is a polarity that stretches between the extremes of isolation and integration, of separation and convergence. (Perhaps Joseph Beuys would associate the integration direction with the warmth principle, isolation and insulation with cold)

    I imagine being able to show that there have been, broadly speaking, discernable vectors of movement along this spectrum over time. The evolution of eras into the ism-movements perhaps constitutes an extremity or conclusion of the movement towards separation and individuation on a socio-cultural level.

    I suspect the pendulum’s turning point in this movement, as far as there is such, lies somewhere around WWII, when the obvious outcome of separation and confrontation became a stark reality (and perhaps inadvertently diffused itself by the massive cross-pollination of previously segregated disciplines through the necessities and crude convergence facilitated by the pursuit of military innovation – ironic if so, but that’s another hypothesis :-)).

    Perhaps we are in an era where the pendulum is accelerating back in the opposite direction (towards integration), or perhaps it is swinging full circle, either way dissolution of boundaries and fusing seem to be becoming far more prominent than they have been for a long time.
    Returning to the question of independent merit, and ignoring the quandaries of subjectivity and relativism, the fact is that as humans we are bound to a narrative causality, an extensive part of our sensory and intellectual ability is based on pattern-recognition which manifests as narrative and causality awareness. Even when the identity of the artist is unknown the beholder will make certain assumptions based on whatever ‘clues’ they perceive about the ‘artist’.

    But that can again bring us full circle, to where the artwork can imply or present qualities that will register significantly positive for a meaningful subset of potential beholders. Which raises questions about the quality, or authenticity of those clues. There are artworks, and for that matter entire genres (as you no-doubt know better than myself) like the generative, where the lion’s share of what the beholder perceives is extensively divorced from the authorship or authority/direction of the artist.

    It also then highlights the role of the beholder, a la the at-least superficial allure of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, and we inevitably have to ask something like, ‘to what extent can the beholder speak for it/them- self?’

    Back to Mr Kentridge, recently in a discussion with a friend who is well versed in the art scene, they remarked that a problem with Mr Kentridge’s art, is that when you happen to dislike a particular piece, most who know something of who and what Mr Kentridge is, automatically assume its because you are stupid/uncultured and/or just don’t get it. That phenomenon has its own artistic merit, no?

    Obviously there as many aesthetic frameworks as there are beholders, but working with meaningful generalisations and generalized categories of the same, some of those aesthetic systems are fundamentally based on authorship-value. For them I’d venture it is virtually impossible to separate the work from the artist. But it also depends on how we define artwork, on a practical commercial/investment level it’s easy to stop at the level of the physical artefact. But in a society that is rapidly acclimatising to computationally mediated and increasingly information-system-centric experience, it stands to reason there is an increasing likelihood of their aesthetic valuation to ‘resonate’ with, or at least recognise the ‘soft’ aspect of an artist’s production, the ‘meta-information’ and abstracted end of Heideger’s ‘aura’ of the work of art, and for that matter the same of the ‘body-of-work’. Then the value of the ‘brand’, as in the case of Mr Kentridge and even merit of the ‘spectacle’ and self-sustaining fame such as that radiating from Hirst and Koons et al. (in my humble estimation of late Mr Kentridge also qualifies for this list) will inevitably be transferred onto their output. We live in a society that knows and cares a hell of a lot more about fame than formal elements of visual, spatial or semiological composition.

    But, as a thought experiment imagine Hirst had kept his authorship of the ‘For Love of God’ diamond encrusted skull a secret, and had somehow engineered it to be discovered without any clues about its context or origen. Virtually impossible in practise, but I guess it would still have fetched a price above its manufacturing cost, though probably well below the $100Mil recorded/engineered sale. Though because of the mystery factor, it may have achieved much wider exposure and attention, if perhaps outside the organised art market and thus by certain ‘artistic’ criteria have been more successful. Takes us back to what we mean by ‘speak for itself?’
    There is the temptation to try and delineate the audience of beholders but maybe that is old-hat?

    I suppose at the moment I conclude that name and fame are inseparably part of artistic output, even in, perhaps especially in, cases where large parts of the creation of it has been deliberately ‘outsourced’ or even inadvertently imposed from some external source. A serious flaw in our appreciation me thinks is in our attachment to individualised identity. Perhaps with less of that we would have more coherent aesthetic frameworks, perhaps even a more balanced and harmonious world – who knows – I don’t know, am only speculating 🙂

    Thanks for your indulgence, good thing pixels are cheap this year.


  6. Hey there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re
    using? I’m going to start my own blog soon but I’m having a
    hard time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.

    P.S Sorry for being off-topic but I had to ask!


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