Menzies Art Brands



William Kentridges lively imagination and thoughtful intelligence, combined with his technical expertise across a wide range of media, have led to his exhibiting in cities around the world to wide acclaim. In 2003 he was awarded the prestigious Goslar Kaiserring Award, a prize which has been bestowed on such noted artists as Henry Moore, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer.

Despite his international success, the artist remains firmly grounded in South Africa where he grew up, having lived his whole life within about five kilometers of his current house and studio in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.1

The artists parents were both prominent lawyers, with his father representing anti-Apartheid activists, while Kentridge has stated that his maternal grandmother was the first woman barrister in South Africa and the second in the British Empire.2 However, Kentridge chose to pursue his own distinctive means of expression through a prolific and diverse practice, which is in itself politically engaged, yet which cultivates ambiguity over didacticism.

Kentridges first forays into the art world were at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, where he concentrated on etching and where he was later to return to teach the subject. During the course of his career, the artist has experimented extensively with many different forms of printmaking, which seems connected to the fact that these more populist artistic languageshave tended to serve in modern history as vehicles for progressive ideas in the face of repressive states.3

The linocut is a technique which has a rich tradition in South Africa where the affordable and accessible nature of the medium has led to its widespread community use. It is this medium which Kentridge has employed for Man Turning into a Tree 2000, a bold and imposing work measuring over eight feet high. Here Kentridge has taken a medium which is noted for its accessibility and stretched it to its limits, creating a monumental testament to the artists technical prowess.

Man Turning into a Tree depicts a heavily shod figure striding across the landscape, his boots dwarfing the pylons below. The mans body inclines forward, as if making use of momentum to propel itself along. This posture gives the figure an uncannily determined quality as it moves inexorably through the landscape.

The 2011 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now, in which an example of this work was exhibited, suggests that the figure is reminiscent of anti-Apartheid marchers and uprooted communities.4 It could be said that both groups are compelled to move, either from political purpose or due to the fact that they have nowhere to go. The mans partial transmogrification into a tree marks him as somehow being of the landscape and yet not: a dark mass out of place against the hypnotically patterned background.

The theme of metamorphosis is a hallmark of Kentridges oeuvre, resonating throughout the many disciplines in which he works, including what he describes as his stone age animations, in which he makes a frame by frame record of the marks, rubbings and erasures of his charcoal drawings as they progress and evolve.

Man Turning into a Tree 2000 has a direct counterpart in Telephone Lady 2000, a linocut of comparable size depicting a woman striding across the landscape, with her lower portion clothed in a skirt, while the upper body consists of an old fashioned Bakelite telephone. In both of these works the central figure is alienated from the landscape, one by politics and the other by technology.

These two companion pieces also address Kentridges concern with personal and cultural memory, a theme which is particularly evident in his prints. The curator of the Museum of Modern Arts 2001 exhibition of the artists prints has observed that Kentridges printmaking practice is a means to address the cultural amnesia that results from the passing of an event or period.5

In this remarkable and hypnotic work, Kentridge adds a touch of the fantastic to a thoughtful and sophisticated engagement with complex issues which he expresses through a bold medium handled with unparalleled skill.

Anne Phillips BA (Hons), MA


1. Bill Gregory, Meetings with a Remarkable Man: William Kentridge in William Kentridge: Universal Archive Parts (7-23), Annandale Galleries, Sydney, 2012, p. 18.

2. Calvin Tomkins, Lines of Resistance: William Kentridges Rough Magic, The New Yorker, January 18 2010, accessed 8 November 2015,

3. Dan Cameron, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev & J.M Coetzee, William Kentridge, Phaidon, London & New York, 1999, p. 40.

4. Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, accessed 8 November2015,

5. Judith B. Hecker, William Kentridge: Trace. Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 12.


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