Kentridge’s signature films have that same slanted scale. The figures are more like moody puppets than like flesh and blood, and the protagonists have the archetypal power found in cartoons, puppet shows, and operas. One, for example, is an evil real-estate tycoon called Soho Eckstein. Another, named Felix, is a melancholy artist. (Kentridge’s 1994 film, Felix in Exile, is on view in the contemporary galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, and his 9 Drawings for Projection, from 2005, is on view from February 15 through 20.) The horrors of apartheid irradiate the films and emerge through drawings—such as one of a murdered man—but do not always claim center stage. As the cosmic chorus plays in the background, Kentridge creates a foreground full of modernist ambiguity. At one point we see Felix shaving and staring in the mirror. As he shaves, he’s erasing his face stroke by stroke.
Despite their philosophical aura, Kentridge’s animations are extraordinarily physical and nothing like the slick animation of the digital era. (He likes to call his animation “illiterate.”) They get much of their feel from the charcoal drawings upon which they are based. Charcoal itself is a primitive, visceral way of drawing, like using a burnt stick. It perfectly captures the “black and white” in Kentridge’s sensibility, and, equally, the changeable grays of his ambiguity. Very little of Kentridge’s hand is lost in the filming. I’ve never seen film so insistent upon the sensation of touch—upon making and erasing marks. The tactile quality of Kentridge’s art not only grounds his abstractions but, like puppetry, brings the viewer very close to the stories being told. When you look at a charcoal drawing, you can almost feel the dust on your fingers. You’re implicated.
Charcoal can also appear old-fashioned, something to be used by students in art school, and Kentridge’s art has a retro surface that bothers some people. His animation evokes the earliest days of film, his drawings depict out-of-date objects like heavy black telephones, and his style has close connections to the German Expressionism of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. Is Kentridge, then, a nostalgic throwback to the World War I era? Not at all. His relationship to history is one of standards, not debts. An artist like Kentridge simply has to have the past present. The past becomes a character. It comes to life because this moralist holds the past—the Enlightenment itself!—accountable to the present. At the same time, the past can also judge the present. Mozart is, of course, a living artist.
Moralists are usually dreary. Kentridge is playful. When he was in New York recently, he particularly enjoyed the current Rauschenberg show at the Metropolitan Museum, he says—especially Rauschenberg’s earlier Combines. He found them “so much more painterly, and so much wittier” than he’d anticipated. He liked the artist’s “lightness” in moving among imagery and genres and his insistence that meanings not be prefabricated but, instead, discovered in the making. He described the attitude as: “Do them, and then you’ll find what they add up to, what the metaphor means.” Kentridge himself loves when meaning slides around in a morally pointed, seriously playful manner. An important character in his Magic Flute, for example, is a rhinoceros. (In the opera, Tamino charms “the wild beasts” with his artful playing.) For the dark Berlin presentation, Kentridge included horrifying archival footage of a white hunter proudly executing—there’s no other word for it—a magnificent rhino. For the light New York show, he created a comical animation of a rhinoceros doing an acrobatic handstand. The animal can symbolize a wild beast, a victim, and a marvel—even, perhaps, Africa itself.