William Kentridge at the Jeu de Paume

William Kentridge’s relationship with Paris spans almost thirty years, starting when the South African artist studied mime at the prestigious Ecole Jacques Lecoc. Now the Jeu de Paume is hosting the first retrospective of his work in France. He is a self-proclaimed dreadful oil painter and says he was a terrible art student, yet despite professing such shortcomings, this exhibition leaves you feeling that there is nothing that Kentridge cannot do. Predominantly working in the mediums of drawing, theatre, film and print-making, the versatile artist also uses sculpture, puppetry and installation as a means of expression.

The South African artist documents loaded issues such as apartheid, genocide and totalitarian regimes. One of his animations has the cheerful title of ‘Sobriety, obesity and growing old’. And yet despite the somber issues, everything is injected with wit and instead of undermining the serious message the pieces convey, it emphasises the human aspect of the sobering motifs.

This humour is carried further in a series of projections filmed in Kentridge’s studio. Flecks of ink speckled over a large sheet of white paper vanish as a bowl of ink in the middle is whisked. A finished painting is mopped up, and reverts to the original white blank page. Kentridge ameliorates a self-portrait he’s torn, scribbled over and rubbed over. Using clever filming techniques, these ingenious films work as a meditation on the linking processes of creation and destruction, whilst also confusing and displacing. Loud trilling piano music adds to the disorientation.

In the piece titled ‘What Will Come (has already come)’, history’s cyclical nature and the potential to distort are depicted by warped images projected onto a flat table, which are then imitated by a mirrored cylinder in the centre. Gas masks complete with legs walk around the middle of the table as fairground music plays over the top of gunshots, screams and sirens. Perhaps this is a reference to society’s ability to drown out atrocities with entertainment. Kentridge pulls off the rare feat of art that offers lessons for humanity without preaching.

There are some beautiful drawings on display in the upstairs gallery, strong and affecting stand-alone pieces. However in the screening downstairs, they are a piece of the whole: Kentridge’s animations are built up from a series of these single charcoal drawings. Normally, a week’s drawing amounts to just forty seconds of animation. Nevertheless, the process is what draws Kentridge to animation: it transforms, evolves and proceeds. The process itself is therefore evocative of the world and its impermanent nature, a principal theme of this beautifully curated exhibition, and just one of many ideas that Kentridge illustrates with profundity.

Cinq Thèmes by William Kentridge is at the Jeu de Paume until the 5th of September 2010.  For more information please visit: jeu de paume

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