William Kentridge, Untitled (Landscape with Two Figures)

24 Oct 2019

The present drawing relates to the exhibition at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 1987 that William Kentridge produced as the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. The exhibition launched at the Festival in June 1987 and subsequently toured the major centres around the country.

Kentridge’s exhibition was based on the work of two rather different eighteenth-century artists, William Hogarth and Antoine Watteau. He re-imagined Hogarth’s set of engravings Industry and Idleness that, in somewhat ironical terms, traced the careers of two apprentices, one improbably bad and the other impossibly good, ending respectively on the gallows and as Lord Mayor of London, to depict a world in which vice rather than virtue is rewarded and the whole social order is depraved. Kentridge’s other choice of Watteau as a model was more surprising because he was the artist, par excellence, of the fetes galantes, those seemingly frivolous celebrations of aristocratic love-making set to music and dance in beautiful French parks. But Kentridge at this time was exploring his ambivalence to the tradition of European art history, enjoying its splendours on a personal level, but rejecting it as a model for his own practice in the conditions that prevailed in South Africa at that time. Thus his re-working of Watteau’s Embarkation from the Island of Cythera that formed the centre-piece of the exhibition overturned the principles of this “Art in a State of Grace”, as he called it, transforming the island paradise into a peri-urban wasteland. Kentridge’s point in this assault on art history, European and local, was to show that the lens through which South Africans had been habituated to view their landscape effectively concealed all of this country’s devastating history.

It is not certain that the present landscape is a parody of any precise painting by Watteau or his school. But Kentridge might have derived a perverse pleasure in transposing a pair of lovers from the side of a delicate fountain in an eighteenth-century French park to immersion in a non-descript concrete farm dam. Other forms in the landscape work to break down what he understood as “the plague of the picturesque” – in other words, clichés of beauty in the conventional representation of landscape. These are human interventions of different sorts that connote a kind of social history in this imaginary place:  worked fields, mine dumps, tyre tracks, lamp posts, pylons, abandoned car wheels, etc., all have their stories to tell – and all effectively deny the possibility of pure aesthetic pleasure without understanding the social reality of the South African landscape.

Michael Godby