Fuse Dispatches: Lessons Drawn — William Kentridge’s “Six Drawing Lessons”

After hearing just the first of William Kentridge’s six Norton Lectures, I have no doubt that this series of “Drawing Lessons” will be one of the most entertaining and enlightening artistic events of 2012.

Information Regarding William Kentridge’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. The lectures are held in Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Tickets are required and are available beginning at noon on the day of each lecture at the Harvard Box Office in the Holyoke Center or by phone (service charge applies to phone orders) and starting at 2 p.m. at Sanders Theatre. Limit two tickets per person. See end of this dispatch for a list of the remaining lectures.

Drawing Lesson One, “In Praise of Shadows”
Introduced by Homi K. Bhabha. March 20, 4 p.m.

By Daniel Bosch.

William Kentridge —"Self Portrait"

The South African artist William Kentridge is justly famed for his mastery of charcoal drawing, print-making, animation, film-making, theatrical direction, production design, and kinetic sculpture. Born in 1955, the son of a prominent civil-rights lawyer, Kentridge’s work in such media has followed the principal arcs of history in his native country. His command of his tools has enabled him to construct objects that respond intimately to particular moments in the struggle to end apartheid, yet at the same time to express universal ideals of justice, grief, and hope. Some years in the future, a retrospective view of Kentridge’s work will show him to hold a place with regard to South African visual art similar to that held by W. B. Yeats with regard to nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry and Ireland. Both artists’ works span two centuries and two eras; both artist’s works embrace human suffering, political turmoil, and great joy.

What is perhaps less well-known about Kentridge is that he is a dynamic live performer, a rhetorician who can communicate a complex message with great timing, clarity, and humor and who delights in the disclosure of his techniques. After hearing just the first of his six Norton Lectures, I have no doubt that this series of “Drawing Lessons” will be one of the most entertaining and enlightening artistic events of 2012. By all means make arrangements right now to call in sick for four upcoming Tuesday afternoons—and one Monday afternoon—so that you can get yourself to Harvard Square to pick up a pair of free tickets to Kentridge’s Norton Lectures at the Harvard Box Office. (Schedule and ticketing details above.) And please follow along at The Arts Fuse as I draw a lesson or two from each lecture I attend.

“In Praise of Shadows,” has set a high bar for Kentridge’s five remaining performances: reading from a notebook that is also a score and launching his talk (as he has promised to do each time) with attention to a particular work he has made; moving purposefully from the podium to other parts of the stage that represent different modes of thought; gesticulating (while calling attention to and making fun of some of the communicative expectations created by his gestures); referring to images projected on a large screen that both collude with and contradict him (many such images timed to arrive with particular motions he makes); having arguments with his critic-doppelganger—on film—over the qualities of his drawing of a rhinoceros. For the first 40 minutes or so of “In Praise of Shadows,” Kentridge, like a consummate juggler, kept adding another ball. The rapt audience wondered, can he handle another? (Can we handle another?) And where will he draw it from?

Since part of its task was to set terms for the whole series, in this lecture Kentridge’s pockets were particularly deep: he tossed philosophy, politics, physical comedy, social justice, physics, and family reminiscences into orbit, without dropping a single element. There are a hundred moments I could single out to try to give you the flavor of this first “Drawing Lesson.” What I’ll try to do in this dispatch is to give you a single example of the deliberately oblique but amazingly strong connectivity that characterizes Kentridge’s approach.

In the closing moments of the lecture, Kentridge spoke as we watched the projected image of a kinetic sculpture rotate on its vertical axis, from which sprouted a bouquet of dark matter, fragments of black paper or metal or plastic or charcoal. As these fragments moved in their orbits, fixed by armature wire about that axis, their silhouettes seemed, momentarily, to combine, come unglued, and then to recombine in greater forms, each haunting, suggestive, but inarticulate. Quite quickly we understood that the rotating axis of the sculpture, though it stayed in one place, was headed somewhere.

ZENO LANDSCAPE 1 (2003) is a portrait in charcoal of a deteriorated landscape still smoking from battle, an image that serves as the rather ominous closing image to the film.

And voila! Precisely as Kentridge fell silent, the black elements in motion on the screen slowly passed their mark, then gently rotated backward into place, the place, so that we could see, finally, how his carefully disposed fragments came together to make a whole—in this case a drawing of a manual typewriter. (Kentridge had reminded us moments before that such machines, metonyms for the development of mass communication in the late nineteenth century and its explosion in the twentieth, were built in the same factories where the Remington corporation had made the rifles used in U.S. Civil war.) The initially incomprehensible—the in-motion, the fragmentary, the disjointed—had come, in its time, to rest, at representation and thus recognition. It was a bravura gesture, an admonition to remember the distorting and defining powers of perspective, anamorphosis, and point of view.

That small sculpture’s storied movement from kinesis to stasis is a ready allegory for a score of human behaviors, not the least of which is the artistic process, which begins with the raw ore of individual experience and emotion and ends, under the auspices of form and technique, with concentrated power and energy, with object fuel others can burn. (Kentridge’s career-long fidelity to charcoal participates in this same allegory.)

Yet earlier Kentridge had proposed a fascinating and more tenuous parallel, the notion of a Universal Archive preserved—at the speed of light—by photons departing Earth. In his kinetic sculpture, a single axis is the rotating center of fragments at a fixed distance from that center. At one point in “In Praise of Shadows,” Kentridge proposes that the rotating Earth might also be the center from which a diaspora of fragmentary images has departed—the countless photons associated with each and every event in the history (and prehistory) of the planet. Using literary events from the history of English poetry, just to narrow our scope, such an archive might be figured in the following diagram, where it is understood that the greater the distance from Earth, the further back in time is the origin of the photonic “trace” of the historical event.

The Universal Archive: As Kentridge explained, photons leaving the earth from the sites of any and every particular historical event might be interpreted and perceived by an eye or I stationed at the right place, the right point of view. Thus all events are not only perceived by means of light, but also archived permanently—and in motion—by the light that was present in the event.

Thus every event not completely enveloped by darkness (is there any event so thoroughly shadowed?) is in some sense preserved and in some imaginary sense, remains observable to an eye (or “I”) that could put itself in the right place. (A place, in the case of the light present at the drawing of Beowulf, some 1200 light years from Earth and still moving!) “Once launched,” says Kentridge, “an image cannot be called back.” From the perspective of the Sun, then, the Earth is painted in the impossibly tiny shadows of every event which has occurred on it—our time is bathed in Borgesian light. With the closure of his first lecture, Kentridge suggested that from some fantastical and ideal viewing distances, perhaps, events in history and in our own lives make a kind of sense as compelling and satisfying as that felt when the kinetic image of a typewriter clicked silently into place.

Implications such as I have drawn from his juxtaposition of the Universal Archive with the exploded typewriter were celebrated in Kentridge’s opening lecture. He emphasized an artistic experience that is the richer when it is suggestive rather than dictatorial, when the image and the word are always already “awaiting (their) deformation,” when the object is actively completed by the viewer/listener, rather than delivered as a hermetically sealed whole. Kentridge writes with both light and shadow and insists on the moment of eclipse as the moment that makes certain kinds of sight possible. Join him on March 27 for “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts”—it will dazzle.

Drawing Lesson Two, “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts”
Introduced by Suzanne Preston Blier
March 27, 4 p.m.

Drawing Lesson Three, “Vertical Thinking: A Johannesburg Biography”
Introduced by Benjamin Buchloh
April 3, 4 p.m.

Drawing Lesson Four, “Practical Epistemology: Life in the Studio”
Introduced by Maria Gough
April 10, 4 p.m.

Drawing Lesson Five, “In Praise of Mistranslation”
Introduced by Glenn Lowry
April 16, 4 p.m.
NB: This is the only lecture not on a Tuesday

Drawing Lesson Six, “Anti-Entropy”
Introduced by Peter Galison
April 24, 4 p.m.

Kentridge’s Norton Lectures will not be followed by Q & A. Instead, a separate opportunity to converse with Kentridge has been scheduled for Monday April 23rd at 4 p.m. This extra session is to be held in Emerson Hall 105.

The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry was endowed in 1925 by C. C. Stillman (Harvard 1898). Incumbents are in residence through their tenure in the Chair and deliver at least six lectures. The term “poetry” is interpreted in the broadest sense, to include all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.

Previous holders of the Norton Chair include Gilbert Murray (1926–27), T. S. Eliot (1932–33), Igor Stravinsky (1939–1940), Charles Eames ((1970–1971), Leonard Bernstein (1972–1973), Frank Stella (1982–84), John Cage (1988–89), Nadine Gordimer (1994–1995), and Orhan Pamuk (2009–2010).


  1. Debra Cash on March 23, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I second Daniel’s assertions that this was not only substantive information from and about one of the world’s greatest draftsmen, and tantalizing insights about what is to come (“knowledge bestows the right to power and the right to power always confers a right to violence” — this from the man whose father defended Mandela and Steve Biko), but a great performance (Kentridge trained as an actor and puppeteer as a young man). Harvard always publishes the Norton lectures; we have to hope that they will offer posterity a record that preserves his presentation and filmed excerpts as well as his text. But in the meantime, I’ll be there.

  2. Evelyn Rosenthal on March 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Sorry I missed this! Thanks for your excellent dispatch, and I look forward to the rest (and to attending some of them myself).

  3. DMK on March 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm


    This jejune and overenthusiastic synopsis occludes the facts of Kentridge’s Plagiarism: Kentridge continues to pass off the work and ideas of others as his own. The smoke and mirrors circus act conceals the fact that the turning carousel kinetic sculpture was not his original idea; nor was the role of script on the Zeno landscape. Moreover, he is no Yeats and the parallel is a risible exaggeration since his knowledge of English poetry is non existent and his political credentials are more than suspect, resting mainly on his father’s celebrity.

    Moreover, FreudPsa e*archive is the source of his misprision of a digital archive turned into his absurd notions; and the multiple personae projections in performance were also not his own idea. The machine gun sounds of a typewriter belong to Godard’s research in Histoires du cinema which Kentridge rifles via an unacknowledged source; “More pixels than the I can see” is also not his own derivation or intellectual property.

    See THE APP on javari.com and http://javari.com/videos for more of his misappropriations, mendacity, and falsehoods.

    This reviewer Bosch has fallen lock stock and barrel for the hype and lures. There will only be more Kentridge virtually fraudulent unethical conduct to follow.

    New York NY

  4. daniel bosch on March 24, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    DMK: I don’t think that Kentridge made any claims that the ideas or works presented in the opening lecture were in some way the first of their kinds. Nor do I think he made a claim that all the ideas he mentioned are “his” ideas. I think it’s a good thing that Kentridge did not add to this exciting elucidation of some of his artistic practices some apparatus that cited all of the materials he referred to or quoted or mustered.

    That said, based on the previous books in the series, we can look forward to Harvard University Press publishing well-footnoted and well-indexed texts of these lectures when they appear in the Norton Lectures Series.

  5. Julia Cloete on March 26, 2012 at 4:23 am

    How absurd that artists and performers should suddenly be required to reference (would that be mid sentence?) their materials and constantly humble themselves (an epilogue perhaps) to all whose ideas they dare to conjure in the making of real time magic? I had thought it was only the likes of post modern anthropologists and linguists that were required to grovel before history and claim nothing from their subjective opinions and prose?

    Death to magic will be the day when those brave enough to stand up and conjure are judged not on the brilliance of experience they endow on their audience but on their ability to reference each inspired fragment?

    I thought is was only in South Africa where verbose bitterness still frequently clouds the ability to enjoy something just for what it is – not its political, artistic, linguistic or economic legitimacy as defined by an ever illusive set of those ‘in the know’.

  6. DMK on March 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Kentridge Counterpoint

    Regret to say, you miss the point completely. We are not talking about some apparatus citing materials “referred to, quoted, or mustered”–the most original creative ideas in his last decade’s work are not Kentridge’s own but stolen intellectual property–facts which he fails to acknowledge and for which he takes full credit (and undue rewards). And once more, a Norton publication would be proleptic, under these circumstances . . . .

    This exchange should end here.

    • Gideon Rossouw on August 27, 2012 at 5:56 am

      What a ‘master’ful stroke – the exchange should END here? The whole point of art is that the exchange should continue!

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