The technique of charcoal has always had a place in art as one of the more expressive techniques. While it does not allow for the kind of refined precision that other techniques have, it more than makes up for it with the ease it gives to gesture techniques., through the variety of the use of tone and line. Its imprecision, a weakness by the standards of most other visual mediums, turns out to be its strength time and time again. The art of William Kentridge, emotional and powerful, takes charcoal drawing to a new level with his addition of the temporal element to the process of drawing through the medium of his animation.
Charcoal is one of the artistic techniques, which produces art that is very hard to save for a long time. It is temporal in its very quality: the drawings are very fragile, they often smudge at the barest of touches. Kentridge, in the making of his films, emphasizes this aspect, giving it even more power by showing the way charcoal changes on film, and directing those changes in a coherent way. If typical visual art can be defined in one aspect as a “frozen gesture”, then charcoal itself often serves to create the illusion of movement, and making a film using charcoal allows for the gesture to remain in the work of art not just as one slice or one stillshot of the process, but as the process itself, engulfing the viewer, and drawing him into the work deeper. Gestures are intimately linked with the depths of the human subconsciousness, and it is well known that movement has a more profound effect on the psyche than stasis. Kentridge pioneers the use of movement with this technique to great effect.
The modification of one drawing and filming this modification creates the same effect that a dance would, or a phrase would. It relieves visual art of much of its unrealistic deliberateness. A frame must follow the previous frame logically: the technique does not allow for jumps and breaks in the flow of consciousness. Granted, this is somewhat restraining in the sense that one cannot start a new frame from a blank page, without dragging along the history of the whole video – yet this is precisely what Kentridge emphasizes in his work. It is living history, unfolding before our eyes, showing in pictorial form how the effects of history can never be removed fully, always influencing our current perceptions. The marks that remain show that nothing is in truth ever done on a blank canvas. We always have the memory to turn to for comparison, and even if something remains, traces and stains will reveal the event passed. It is a testament to the world’s inability to forget.
Also the plus of this technique is that it shows how the art is made: what we are looking at is not merely a tale told, but a demonstration of how the tale is told, an observation of the way a work of art is work. The autographic mark of Kentridge is one of the main ingredients of the attractiveness of his work. Before our eyes, the artist reveals his individuality in the process of drawing. His invisible hand directs the metamorphoses, and we suddenly become ambgious as we watch: we are the viewer, who appraises, the artist, who creates the fictional world, and the relationship between fiction and fact, drawing and reality. This uncertainty, a key principle of the postmodern view, haunts us as we intake Kentridge’s art. His topics are uncertain, his technique even more so: we feel lost – and yet, forced to find our way through the loss of orientation, we learn how to find ourselves and our impact on reality. It is an experience, not just the print of one.
The form is crude, however, the effect is great. In no small part this is due to the autographic mark so evident in Kentridge’s work, both in content and in technique. The characters he uses – Soho and Felix – are in no small way self-reflective, and, as with any art, show the experiences of the author filtered through his art. However, most art does not have Kentridge’s rich thickness – matched, perhaps, by some of his predecessors in the neo-Dada movements. There is a number of similarities between Kentridge and such people as Rauschenberg, Johns, and Twombly. Their use of the mark is a display of how one principle can create such numerous and different forms. The mediums are different, and yet, the quality they achieve is similar: a graspable art, that creates a fine play between reality and depiction. They are prints of the outer world first and foremost, and the artist is not so much creator as interpreter, putting the world in context for the audience that comes to the museums. All of these artists make any sense at all only if one is willing to engage in a kind of semiotic play, to discover the real reasons behind the art, to delve deeper both through the appraisal of technique and learning the context.
All of these points can easily be seen if one examines any of Kentridge’s charcoals – not just from Weighing and Wanting. For instance, one of the stills from History of the Main Complaint shows how Soho Eckstein is put into an MRI machine. We watch a man who has collapsed under the weight of his memories, ready to be put into the darkness within the machine – and, at the same time, the darkness of his own mind. He is weak and unable to move, totally at the mercy of the surroundings and the scanner. We are the outsiders in this print – it is from their vantage point we are looking – and, though Soho is nearly non-existent, drawn in dark colors, close to death, it is we who are also at his mercy. Not only is he dependent on us – we are even more upon him, for if he does not reveal his secrets to us, our actions will be pointless, a failure. This ambiguousness is mediated by the machine, which is in shades of gray: it is there to help distinguish the tones of memories, to help sift through them both for us and the hero. It is the artist as much as Soho is, as much as we are. Shades of gray and shadows, blank spaces and black charcoal: this print shows how our whole world can be gathered into a single point of action and concentrated around it. It captures a single moment in time, and explains the relationship between the passive and the active, the observer and the artist.
The marks Kentridge leaves are not careful. He is not accurate so much as powerful: he leaves marks with the ease charcoal marks paper and destroys them with his eraser with a whimsical feeling only a demigod might have. The black-and-gray world, with merely a touch of blue, is grotesque. It is a medium to the world of contradiction, to shadow, with which we are faced every day, but upon which we do not heave attention in the same way we give ourselves to matters of light and laughter. Kentridge is Jungian: there is never certainty in shades of gray. And yet there is never total bleakness, there is always a light to get through – one “merely” has to find the courage to look through the bleakness to find it. Kentridge in his art deals with the darker whimsies of the world, and, through the shared experience his films create, teaches us how to deal with the world’s unfair beauty.