Automatic Writing

William Kentridge in his studio, drawing typewriters

I first saw William Kentridge’s work – drawings and films – in a special exhibition devoted to him and his works at the Smithsonian, in D.C.  I remember walking in and coming to an abrupt stop.  And staring.  At his immense, largely black & white drawings.  At what for me at the time was the hallucinatory and compelling nature of his images and imagery.  Images of suffering.  Of corruption.  Of greed.  Of pollution.  And of what, for lack of better way of putting it, were the transformations that seemed to be happening in his drawings, in his prints – and then later in his films.  Things morphing into other things. People mutating….men becoming women….women becoming men….objects becoming.… ‘alive’.

From "Stereoscope", 1999

It was mind-boggling stuff.  It blew me away.  The films even more than the still images.

Kentridge standing in front of one of his drawings

Brief pause for the dry, biographical facts and info for those who don’t know.  William Kentridge, born in the 1950’s, is a South African artist known for his prints, drawings, and animated films. The films are made by what I think is a relatively unique process: he makes a drawing….he films it.  Then he erases it.  And changes it.  And films the erasures and changes.  Again.  And again and again.  As the process continues, images.….change.  Evolve.  Move.  And….mutate.  And the whole thing is put together in a lineal temporal fashion to make….a movie.

Production stills from "Felix in Exile", 1994

It’s also worth mentioning that Kentridge studied to become an actor.  He moved to Paris and studied both mime and theatre for a spell. Back in South Africa, he acted and directed theatre, and also worked as an art director for television and films.

But back to his movies.  They were – and are – unlike anything I, who always thought of myself as smart and well-educated – ha! so much for illusions – had ever seen before.  Have ever seen before, really.  His films, like his drawing and prints, are fucking amazing.  They are worth going out of your way to find and see.

"Art in a State of Siege", 1986

They also affected me – and affect me – in ongoing ways.  Much of his work seems political – he is showing us things we really don’t want to see, shoving them in our faces.  But it is also personal, occasionally painful, and surprisingly emotional.  Kentridge’s works run the whole gamut of the inner human experience, another reason to seek them out.

"Casspirs full of love" 1989/2000

In addition to expressing himself in and through visual media, Kentridge is quite articulate with words.  He talks occasionally about his art, his films, his process; he talks about many things.

Like….social responsibility.

Switchboard operators from "Stereoscope", 1999

Q: What do you think the social responsibility of the artist is?

A: I don’t think there is a social responsibility for an artist. I think it’s their responsibility to work as well as they can and as far as they can with what they’re doing. Then I think the nature of what emerges from the work will be much more complicated.

A less precise question would be, ‘is it an artist’s responsibility to predict a beautiful future’? Absolutely not! I don’t think there’s a single core responsibility except to his or her work. I am interested in political art, but precisely in political art that denies such responsibility. In the long run you get work which is: (A) more interesting (B) has a more interesting relationship to the world around you and (C) in the long run, is more responsible in terms of being part of an ongoing unlocking of what constitutes society.

"General" 1993

And…the Internet.

Q: Could you share with us some of your thought about the Internet?

A:  I’ve never found a comfortable way to read the Internet. Every search engine that I’ve gone through is so filled with other noise . . . garbage . . . it’s always felt like picking up a very badly published book. It takes a huge effort to look inside, to find something worth reading. I’m always so put off by the cover page, the contents page and the introduction . . . I generally close the book before I get into chapter one.

And most fascinating of all, the process by which he creates his movie.

Q: I like that you call your films ‘stone-age filmmaking.’

A: That’s because it’s so simple.  The films started because I spent ages writing a film script. And having written the film script, I realized that that was the start of the process. I was going to be spending years trying to get other people enthusiastic about this film before I could start to make it. I’m kind of relieved that I never made that feature film. It could have been a very bad film. I would have been a bad person to make it.

I decided that I needed to find a way in which, if I wanted to make a film, I could start without anyone else’s permission, anyone else being enthusiastic about it. It need to be something that I could do on my own and cost nothing. With a camera and a roll of film I could be filming the first day, I decided. It’s not expensive, so it didn’t depend upon producers coming in to do it, and it didn’t need an army of technicians, assistants, and studio people to do it. It’s the opposite of conventional filmmaking, where you start with distribution and work backward. In the end, if you’re lucky, after three years you spend six weeks practicing your craft doing the actual filming.

Captive of the City, frame from "Johannesburg: 2nd Greatest City after Paris" 1989

Finally, after all these words….some images. This is Kentridge’s film Automatic Writing, made in 2003.  One last thing I should mention: the haunting, complex, jarring music scores to Kentridge’s works are composed by his long-time collaborator, the largely unknown and underappreciated Philip Miller.

William Kentridge understands the paradoxes of being trapped in existence, to be finite creatures of flesh and blood.

“We have an uneasy relationship to our bodies. John Updike refers to us as ‘the herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle’. We prod them along, hoping they will not suddenly go off on their own, leap a fence, wander onto the highway.”

Man (Felix) and Megaphone

He puts the dilemma of an artist in a way that is as compelling as his work:

“The first promptings to work as an artist are still there. The questions haven’t changed. How does one find a way, not of illustrating the society one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work.”

Doctors, from "Ubu Tells the Truth" 1996/1997

Go find his work.

See it.

Look at it.

Watch it.

Then try to see what it does to you.

And, if you are lucky, how it begins to change you….drawing by drawing….erasure by erasure….in the film of your daily routine….your existence.


Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau

One of my favorite Prévert poems….that’s Jacques Prévert.

I remember when I first read it.  And then I just sat there. And then I remember….I smiled.

A poem about many things.  About cages. And how to open them.  About freedom.  And patience.  A poem about the artistic process….about creating something that looks like something else….and turns into something else entirely.

Here is Prévert’s original text –


Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau

Peindre d’abord une cage
avec une porte ouverte
peindre ensuite
quelque chose de joli
quelque chose de simple
quelque chose de beau
quelque chose d’utile
pour l’oiseau
placer ensuite la toile contre un arbre
dans un jardin
dans un bois
ou dans une forêt
se cacher derrière l’arbre
sans rien dire
sans bouger …
Parfois l’oiseau arrive vite
mais il peut aussi bien mettre de longues années
avant de se décider
Ne pas se décourager
attendre s’il le faut pendant des années
la vitesse ou la lenteur de l’arrivée de l’oiseau
n’ayant aucun rapport
avec la réussite du tableau
Quand l’oiseau arrive
s’il arrive
observer le plus profond silence
attendre que l’oiseau entre dans la cage
et quand il est entré
fermer doucement la porte avec le pinceau
effacer un à un tous les barreaux
en ayant soin de ne toucher aucune des plumes de l’oiseau
Faire ensuite le portrait de l’arbre
en choisissant la plus belle de ses branches
pour l’oiseau
peindre aussi le vert feuillage et la fraîcheur du vent
la poussière du soleil
et le bruit des bêtes de l’herbe dans la chaleur de l’été
et puis attendre que l’oiseau se décide à chanter
Si l’oiseau ne chante pas
c’est mauvais signe
signe que le tableau est mauvais
mais s’il chante c’est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer
Alors vous arrachez tout doucement
une des plumes de l’oiseau
et vous écrivez votre nom dans un coin du tableau.

"La Clairvoyance", by René Magritte


And in English —


To paint a bird’s portrait

First of all, paint a cage
with an opened little door
then paint something attractive
something simple
something beautiful
something of benefit for the bird
Put the picture on a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide yourself behind the tree

Sometimes the bird arrives quickly
but sometimes it takes years
Don’t be discouraged
wait for years if necessary
the rapidity or the slowness of the arrival
doesn’t have any relationship
with the result of the picture

When the bird comes
if it comes
keep the deepest silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when entered in
Close the door softly with the brush
then remove one by the one all the bars
care not to touch any feather of the bird

Then draw the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful branch
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the coolness
of the beasts of the grass in the summer’s heat
and then, wait that the bird starts singing

If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
it means that the picture is wrong
but if it sings it’s a good sign
it means that you can sign

so you tear with sweetness
a feather from the bird
and write your name in a corner of the painting.


Y por fin una versión en castellano –


Para hacer el retrato de un pájaro

Pintar primero la jaula
con la puerta abierta
pintar después
algo gracioso
algo simple
algo hermoso
algo útil
para el pájaro
apoyar después la tela contra un árbol
en un jardín
en un montecillo
o en un bosque
esconderse tras el árbol
sin decir palabra
sin moverse…
A veces el pájaro aparece al instante
pero a veces puede tardar años
antes de decidirse
No desalentarse
esperar si es necesario durante años
la prontitud o la demora en la llegada del pájaro
no guarda relación
con la calidad del cuadro
Cuando el pájaro aparece
si aparece
observar el más profundo silencio
aguardar a que el pájaro entre en la jaula
y una vez que haya entrado
cerrar suavemente la puerta con el pincel
borrar de uno en uno todos los barrotes
con cuidado de no rozar siquiera las plumas del pájaro
Reproducir después el árbol
cuya más bella rama se reservará
para el pájaro
pintar también el verde follaje y la frescura del viento
el polvillo del sol
y el zumbido de los bichos de la hierbas en el calor
del verano
y después esperar que el pájaro se decida a cantar
Si el pájaro no canta
mala señal
señal de que el cuadro es malo
pero si canta es buena señal
señal de que podéis firmar
Entonces arrancadle suavemente
una pluma al pájaro
y poned vuestro nombre en un ángulo del cuadro.

Jacques Prévert et son chien (Prévert and his dog)

Si l’oiseau ne chante pas, c’est mauvais signe

Si el pájaro no canta, mala señal

If the bird doesn’t sing, it’s a bad sign

But don’t worry too much.

Because if the dog barks – or licks you – all may not be lost.