The Museum of Modern Art’s new retrospective of the work of the South African artist William Kentridge is organized around five themes. “Themes” is something of a misnomer, though, since the five sections of the show coalesce around what might more accurately be described as “distinct bodies of work.” Either way, several themes (and certainly more than five) recur in many sections, with at least one being very hard to ignore: Jewishness, an omnipresent feature throughout Kentridge’s oeuvre.
“There’s no question that he’s influenced by his Jewishness,” said Judy Hecker, who co-curated the MoMA show. “This notion of the oppressed and the oppressor — the Holocaust must have something to do with that,” she said, then noted his prominent family background. Both his parents were leading figures in the battle against apartheid, a fact that rarely goes unmentioned.
Within a generation of his family’s emigration from Lithuania (the original family name was Kantorowitz), at the turn of the 20th century, both sides had produced distinguished South Africans too: his paternal grandfather was elected to Parliament in 1913, and his maternal grandmother was the first woman barrister in the country’s history. “They were a very liberal Jewish family,” Hecker said.
The Jewish themes, not surprisingly, go well beyond generalities. Specific visual cues will catch the eye of even a casual Jewish observer. In a few of his stop-animation films for the series “Ubu and the Procession,” which helped bring Kentridge to fame in the late-1990s, black Africans are shown in filthy communal showers. They directly reference South Africa’s diamond and gold mines, where blacks were exploited for labor. But they easily summon Auschwitz, a point that is made explicitly in the show’s catalogue.
“‘Mine’” — a short film from 1991 — “begins with Soho [the mine owner] presiding from his bed over the landscape and swarms of workers,” writes Mark Rosenthal, who originally conceived the show for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art, in Florida. “The latter sleep in primitive barracks, and in their quarters are showers with uncomfortable Nazi-era associations.”
Strangely enough, the mine owner, Soho Eckstein, along with the character Felix Teitlebaum, has provoked the most commentary about Jewishness in Kentridge’s work. Soho’s depiction as a power-hungry capitalist has led some to view him as a crude Jewish caricature. But his later remorse and reform have helped to counter that. Kentridge’s more sympathetic Jewish character Felix, a poetic dreamer, has complicated the picture too. “I find that very disarming,” said Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator of The Jewish Museum. “You see Jews play both roles.” (The museum will host its own Kentridge exhibit in May.)
Both characters originated in Kentridge’s film series “9 Drawings for Projection,” all of which are on view at the exhibit. Begun in 1989, each film depicts Soho or Felix, or both, in a short story that only loosely follows a narrative. The surnames most immediately suggest the characters’ Jewish identity, but curators are quick to point out what Kentridge himself has said about them: the names are merely accidental. “He didn’t intentionally seek out Jewish names,” Hecker said, adding that Ashkenazi names were just part of the world the artist grew up in. In other words, he used what was familiar.
In any event, the artist’s demurring on the question of what their Jewish names might mean is not indicative of darker feelings he might harbor about his own Jewish identity. Kentridge is neither self-loathing nor self-conscious about it, a fact several curators noted in interviews and which seems manifest in the un-ironic, frequently endearing portraits of himself and his closely associated doppelgangers, Soho and Felix.
More recently, he’s referenced his Jewish background in interviews about his new production of Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose,” which Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s director, commissioned him to design and direct. Kentridge has said that his drawings for the opera — which follows a Soviet officer whose nose falls off, then actually surpasses him up the bureaucratic ladder — were modeled off his own proboscis. “The shape of the nose is my nose, an Ashkenazi Jewish nose,” he told The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins (and apparently with pride: Tomkins wrote that Kentridge said that while “beaming”).
Kentridge is no dummy, either. He is known as much for his erudition as he is for his craft, which suggests that there’s more Jewish content than surface qualities alone. The art movements of modernism and Russian constructivism, to take one example, have a prominent place in Kentridge’s art. And the exhibit is replete with references to them: several films feature close-ups of eyeballs, alluding to Buñuel and surrealism; blocky red-and-black fonts projected on backgrounds for “The Nose” evoke Tatlin, Malevich and the Russian avant-garde.
Kentridge has said that the appeal of these movements stems from their heady idealism, their hope that society can be transformed and made new. That thinking represents a kind of secular messianism, and though Kentridge is no naïf, he is not alone in feeling that attraction. Many Jewish artists were drawn to both movements for similar motivations, and not without reason. Even still, modernity, in the social sense, offers a hard bargain to Jews — promising equality, but promoting diversity and distinctions.
Soho and Felix embody that tension. And while it is not unique to Jews — the universality of Kentridge’s art has, in fact, been a key factor in his success — it resonates deeply with them. As Kleeblatt said: “What was of interest to The Jewish Museum was that he uses these two characters to enact this predicament of the Jew … there is the Jew who is successful, wealthy, but also [the Jew who is] an outsider.”
Both figures, however, bear a strong physical resemblance to Kentridge: portly and bald, with a large nose and hunched shoulders. The artist has even said that each represents aspects of himself. With that in mind, it is possible to view them as paradigms of Jewish life in South Africa more particularly. On the one hand, many Jewish South Africans were liberal idealists who fought to end apartheid — Kentridge and his family among them.
But they also benefited from the racial hierarchy that privileged skin color above all else. The story of Barney Banato, the Jewish immigrant who founded DeBeers, would never have been possible if he were black. To a lesser extent, but still similar, Kentridge’s rise to fame would have been less likely had he not had the benefit of being white — a university education, wealth and all they afford.
Kentridge is well aware of this paradox, and one instance in particular is worth mentioning. In 1998, the year after his inclusion in Documenta X, the German art festival that launched his career, he told the black writer bell hooks (she spells it without capital letters) that he could not honestly champion black rights without acknowledging the privileged status he inherited at their expense.
“There were always prominent Jewish people in the anti-apartheid movement,” he told hooks, in an exchange published in Interview magazine. “But a central irony exists for South African Jews. Our Passover ceremony every year commemorates the Jews as slaves in Egypt. And there was always an understanding that here we are in South Africa talking about having been slaves in Egypt, yet in the present we are certainly not slaves.” He went on: “In the present, we are absolutely not part of those most oppressed. We are part of the privileged whose lives are made comfortable by an immediate sense of the society we are living in. That remains an uncomfortable irony to live with.”
Together, Soho and Felix enact that irony. But perhaps it is Soho, not the dreamer Felix, who lives with it more. Despite frequent claims that Felix is a closer likeness to Kentridge than Soho, in at least one film, “Stereoscope,” from 1999, the ballyhooed tycoon seems the closer match. Not only does Soho strikingly resemble Kentridge here, he also begins to deal with the complications in his own life.
The film begins with a split-screen image of Soho sitting at his desk. He looks at a framed picture of his wife, who suddenly appears in the arms of Felix. Outside, there is a protest, followed by police beatings, then gunshots. He cannot focus. Later, an exterior view of his office shows his building suddenly collapsing. Then, in the final scene, Soho stands alone in a room, his head bowed in mourning, as a flood of blue water rises up his legs.
Kentridge has said that the blue water, which stands in marked contrast to the dark monotones around it, represents a kind of “domestic redemption.” In that sense, Soho can be seen less as drowning in sorrow than he is becoming emotionally alive. The museum has chosen that image — Soho in a sea of blue — for many of its promotional images. It hangs on the banners outside its building on 53rd Street, and blankets many subway walls. It is a wise choice, for nowhere else do we see Kentridge this honest — with the paradox of his success, of his country and Jewish life in it. n
“William Kentridge: Five Themes” is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art through May 17. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Nose” runs in repertory through March 25. The Jewish Museum’s exhibit “South Africa Projections: Films by William Kentridge” opens May 2 and closes Sept. 19.