Universal Archive is a print suite of over seventy-five linocuts by South Africa’s best-known contemporary artist, William Kentridge. They were developed in relation to his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University. It was an unusual honour for a visual artist to be invited by Harvard to give this distinguished annual lecture series and Kentridge did not disappoint the university. The title for the series of six lectures was Six Drawing Lessons. He is a brilliant lecturer and much of the content for this exhibition consists of his visual materials for these talks. They are available on YouTube and are very much worth a look.

The Beaverbrook’s installation of the prints on black walls is stunning and compliments the black and white format of Kentridge’s work. He is a first rate printmaker and these prints are the result of a collaboration with the David Krut print workshop in Johannesburg, a long-time partner of the artist. The original drawings were done using a brush and india ink. These were then carefully reproduced as linocut blocks and overprinted on non-archival pages cut from 1950s era dictionary and encyclopaedia pages overlaid on a more permanent base. The drawings are the dictionary or encyclopaedia pages. On examining the prints I can find no relationship between the drawing and texts on which they are printed. Presumably the underlying text is different on each print in each edition, the size of which varies from twenty to thirty-five, as all the prints are on original pages from the books.

Kentridge takes mundane items like a bird, a cat, a coffee pot or a typewriter and through a series of drawings, transforms them from objects to abstract marks more like gestures or ideographs. Ideally one should see these prints in series, to better understand the thinking that went into their creation; but each is quite beautiful on its own. In his first Norton Lecture, Kentridge spoke at length on Plato’s Republic and his essay on how humankind views the known world as shadows on the wall of a cave. Much that we think we know is a mere reflection of a much different reality. Even if we escape the cave, we can be blinded by reality and long to return to the comfort of that darkened shelter and its reassuring reflections. Artists, says Kentridge, should obey Plato’s demand, taking themselves, and the rest of us, by force if necessary into the daylight.

Kentridge’s heady demands on artists can likely be traced to his growing up in Apartheid South Africa as a white upper class Jew in Johannesburg. Educated both in politics and African Studies as well as fine arts, he had a window on the changing world of South Africa as an insider, White, and as an outsider, a Jew. He also spent a year in Paris studying theatre and mime. There he discovered that he was no actor, but he has become an impressive speaker. He returned home to Johannesburg and that remains his home, although he now travels all over the world in pursuit of his art. The sanctions forced on Apartheid South Africa placed him in a kind of artistic isolation that gave him an opportunity to develop an originality that might have been denied him elsewhere.

There is a sense of the absurd in his work. It shows in his love of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi to which he has paid homage in his prints. Absurdity is a constant undercurrent in his work and is certainly evident in this Universal Archive print series where a coffee pot changes into a woman, a man and, finally, something that resembles a Chinese ideograph. While I have identified Kentridge as a great printmaker, he is also a fine draughtsman and one who thinks with his hands. This is evident when you watch him draw, as I did, in his Norton Lectures on YouTube. That is, of course, a compliment. The blank sheet of paper is the surface on which the true artist can show genius. A drawing can make us see the world differently. What was in the artist’s head becomes evident on paper. A two dimensional line in a good drawing becomes a three dimensional reality in our own minds.

There is very little colour in Kentridge’s work and certainly none in this exhibition. I, for one don’t miss it. He says that he is uncomfortable working in colour and perhaps that is explained by his early commitment to printmaking. The strong contrast of the black brush marks against a printed work background works remarkably well in this series. I have had the good fortune to spent considerable time looking at the Universal Archive prints. Each time I visited the exhibition I found something different. It is not an exhibition to rush through.

I would be remiss if I did not add that Kentridge is an extraordinarily multifaceted artist. He is a noted film animator, opera set designer, and sculptor. His opera designs range from Monteverdi and Mozart to Shostakovich and Berg, the last of these being a very successful staging of Alban Berg’s Lulu for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. About the only medium he hasn’t seemed to have pursued is painting which, given his lack of interest in using colour isn’t surprising. Still, he is only sixty-one years old and has plenty of time left to master the medium should he choose to do so. He is an artist who’ll put a lasting stamp on contemporary art. 

William Kentridge Universal Archives
Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton
4 June—18 September, 2016