Over the past three decades, visual artist William Kentridge has garnered international acclaim for his work across media including drawing, film, sculpture, printmaking, and theater. Best known for his entrancing stop-motion films of charcoal drawings, he creates images that are personal, poetic stories, often reflecting his native South Africa. The cultural boycott of the anti-apartheid movement allowed his art to form and flourish on its own trajectory, unaltered by what his contemporaries were creating elsewhere.
When Kentridge was invited to deliver the 2012 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, he telephoned his father to share the news. “Well,” his father asked, “do you have anything to say?”
“But you understand,” Kentridge recalls answering, “it is a great honor to be asked to give the Norton Lectures.”
“Indeed,” his father said, “and now you have that honor. You don’t have to accept.”
But accept he did, and the lectures—which we’ll publish next month as Six Drawing Lessons—represent the most comprehensive collection available of Kentridge’s thoughts on art, art-making, and the studio. The six “lessons” aren’t quite instruction, but rather investigations of how meaning is made in the studio. The book begins with a discussion of Plato and his cave full of shadows thrown by the fire. Kentridge argues that shadows are an extension of one’s self and asks readers to imagine a child on the beach watching his shadow, lifting his arm, controlling a version of himself. Images of Kentridge’s shadow puppet silhouettes help readers to visualize shadows and movement.
Subsequent lessons discuss the histories of the Enlightenment and colonialism; Kentridge’s home town of Johannesburg; life in the studio; and the various mechanisms and deceptions through which we construct meaning in the world. According to Kentridge, art is a form of knowledge, which allows us to “inhabit the terrain in between, the space between what we see on the wall, and what we conjure up behind our retinas.”
Kentridge was deeply involved in transforming his lectures into book form, helping us to navigate the challenges of presenting on the page talks that were accompanied by video clips, a live orchestra, and even the artist’s half-live/half-recorded conversations with himself. The result, generously illustrated throughout with Kentridge’s own artwork, makes from six lessons a master class in the relation of art to life.