A Universal Archive: William Kentridge as Printmaker


Aberystwyth Arts Centre

William Kentridge

A giant image of a bird looms over the visitor on entering this exhibition of prints by South African artist William Kentridge. ‘Learning the Flute (Reverse)’ is a photolithograph printed on dozens of sheets of paper. It is both real and dreamlike, clear and curious. Being reversed, the lines are white on black, yet it still reads as a big black bird, inside something like a camera obscura.

Playful and slightly sinister, the image sets the tone for this wonderful selection of more than a hundred prints. Some are one-offs, others are series. Some are naughty, others grim. Kentridge’s bubbling imagination pours out, channelled through the discipline of the form.

Printmaking has a history of satire and Kentridge was inspired in part by Goya when he made ‘Little Morals’ in 1991, during the period between the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections. In a series of eight etchings, timeless white characters cavort naked or with megaphones for heads. In the final image of the series, ‘Reserve Army’, a battlefield is strewn with objects (landmines?) resembling black men’s heads.

Another series of etchings, ‘Nose’, was made while the multi-talented Kentridge was preparing to direct Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. The opera is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol about a government official whose nose detaches from his face and develops a celebrated life of its own. Blending nineteenth and twentieth century iconography with cartoons, the series takes us on an adventure that ends with our poor vain nose blown apart by firing squad.

Different mediums bring out different themes and styles. Kentridge enjoys making linocuts that use thick brush-like marks; his cats, typewriters and coffee pots are full of wild life as a consequence. Often printed on the pages of old reference books, these contribute to the sense of an archive. Kentridge layers the present and the past, the image and the word, leaving us to puzzle over the feelings of presence and loss that are magically conjured.

The exhibition is well displayed and illuminatingly captioned. It is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue, on sale in the gallery for £15, which includes essays and a detailed interview with the artist about his techniques.

William Kentridge

This Hayward Touring exhibition (from London’s Southbank Centre) is open daily in Gallery 1 of Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 16 May 2014. Gallery opening times: Mon – Wed 10am – 5pm, Thu – Sat 10am – 8pm, Sun 1pm – 5pm. Admission free.