Narrative & Personal History

Published on November 18th, 2010 by Jessica Hamlin

William Kentridge, "Tide Table," 2003. Production stills; 35mm animated film transferred to video, 8:50 min. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

Stories are told in many ways: written, visual, theatrical, musical. Through film and performance, William Kentridge creates visual narratives that explore both personal and universal themes. Kentridge suffuses difficult historical moments, including the exodus of the Jews from Czarist Russia, with the intimacy of his own lived experience such as the period of apartheid in South Africa. Kentridge’s animated films, History of the Main Complaint (1996) and Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1991), blend personal and fictional elements. Each film depicts the conditions provoked by apartheid and reflect the brutality of this period in South African history.

  • How do films and animation lend themselves to storytelling and narrative differently than a drawing, painting, or sculpture does?
  • How does art investigate the past? How do artists interpret history in new ways?
  • Discuss examples of artworks inspired by personal and social histories, such as Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series (1810-1820), Kathe Kollwitz’s print series, The Peasant’s War (1903-1908), or Carrie Mae Weems’s photographic series, Constructing History (2008).  How do artists translate personal, familial, social, or historical experiences and events into art?

Process and Narrative

With his animated film History of the Main Complaint (1996) serving as a backdrop, this Exclusive features Kentridge discussing how artists draw upon the experience of tragedy as subject matter for their work, as well as how the act of drawing itself can be a compassionate act. Images from the film show his unique method of drawing, erasing, and redrawing images, photographing each step of the process to create an animation. See the full On Animated Films slideshow.

William Kentridge, drawings for the film "History of the Main Complaint," 1996. Charcoal and pastel on paper. From L: 31 1/2 x 47 1/4 in. R: 47 1/4 x 63 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

  • How does History of the Main Complaint describe the history of apartheid and the experience of living during this period differently than a history textbook, novel, or a commemorative sculpture or memorial would?
  • What reasons might Kentridge have for creating work out of erased drawings, rather than making multiple drawings or even animating his work on a computer? Why show the process?
  • How does revealing the process of making a film differ from revealing the process of making a sculpture or drawing? How is it similar?

That’s what every artist does—use other people’s pain as well as his own as raw material. So there is—if not a vampirishness—certainly an appropriation of other people’s distress in the activity of being a writer or an artist. But there is also something in the activity of both—contemplating, depicting, and spending the time with it—which I hope as an artist redeems the activity from one of simple exploitation and abuse.

  • What is the role of the artist in society? Are there multiple roles he or she can play? What contributions can an artist make?
  • Discuss how Kentridge describes his relationship to society. What does his work “do”?
  • How can one express rage or outrage to address injustice?
  • How does Kentridge “re-evoke” that initial shock he experienced as a boy when he saw what people were capable of doing to one another? How does he express this in the History of the Main Complaint?

Make Something
Reflect on the role of the artist in society. Research how artists past and present describe their ideas about what they create and how it relates to the world around them. Present these findings in visual and/or written form.

Select an article or story from a periodical that provoked a strong personal reaction in you and research additional information about the events that took place. Re-present the story from a new vantage point, such as from an imagined participant or witness, in order to give more information about the event and to present an alternative perspective.

Politics and Justice

William Kentridge, "Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris," 1989. Production stills; 16mm animated film transferred to video, 8:02 min. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

The first of Kentridge’s animated films, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1991), introduces the central characters Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitelbaum, who represent opposing aspects of the artist’s personality and life in South Africa.

  • Why does Kentridge use narrative animation to address political and social themes?
  • How are Kentridge’s stories both personal and universal?
  • Describe a time in your life when you fought for justice in some way or advocated for someone. What happened? What were the results?

Make Something
Find an image of a public gathering such as a parade, march, protest, concert, or classroom. Alter the image to suggest a new reason for why the people depicted have gathered, perhaps one that reflects a personal concern or cause. Animate your image to show the gathering take action.

This theme relates to page 6 in the Educators’ Guide and Screening Companion.

One Response to “Narrative & Personal History”

  1. mudanças says:

    Good post !!
    Im back another time!

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

Leave a Reply