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