William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable
Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, 20th February 2018
Off to Bruges and Brussels for a couple of days. Main purpose. To soak up the best paintings that the Northern Renaissance has to offer. Now you all know that it doesn’t get much prettier than Bruges, (though Ghent may just top it). Which also means that it should be avoided like the plague during the high season. And it should never be insulted with just a day trip. Do not miss the Chapel of St Basil, the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, with its “Medieval” murals telling the story of the City from C19 artist Albrecht de Vriendt, and Frank Brangwyn’s drawings and etchings in the Arenthuis. Ooh and don’t be sniffy about taking a boat trip.
The main reason for going though is the art. Specifically the first two rooms of the Groeningmuseum. Go in February. Get there early and you might just have the rooms to yourself. Room 1 has the extraordinary diptych from Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, a warning to dodgy politicians everywhere, and a Bosch Last Judgement. Room 2 though will take your breath away. Impossible to know which way to look. Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, more David. Further on Adriaen Isenbrandt, Hugo van der Goes and Jan Provoost. And works of astounding beauty from unidentified masters.
Topping it all is Jan van Eyck’s, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. His greatest ever painting? I think so. Thus making it the greatest work of Western art ever. Swing your head round and you see his portrait of his missus Margareta. This must be the single best concentration of art in the world.
Of course you may hate this stuff what with all that religious mumbo-jumbo, preponderance of shiny things and “realism” that is anything but. You’d be a mug though.
In which case the Memlings in the ground floor of the Sint-Janshospitaal are also not going to do much for you. Shame. There are five astonishing works capped by the St John Altarpiece and Shrine of St Ursula. Take your magnifying glass. And see the fascinating videos which show Memling’s underdrawings and his immense skill as a draughtsman.
Or move on. For help is at hand. In the form of William Kentridge. Now I didn’t go specifically to see this carefully constructed collection of Kentridge’s recent work by curator Margaret Koerner. But it was fortuitous timing nonetheless. South African William Kentridge is one of the most renowned of the, how shall I put this, older generation of contemporary living artists. His work covers drawings, prints and sculpture, but he is probably best known for his animated films and for the installations that contextualise them. He makes charcoal drawings, which he then erases and changes, filming the results to create his glorious Expressionistic animations. His subjects are numerous, though history, language and justice are common themes, specifically in his native South Africa, from his perspective as a white Jew whose parents defended the victims of apartheid.
I saw the production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO in 2016 which he directed and which bore his distinctive visual stamp. I can’t say I was enthralled by the results but that is largely because Alban Berg’s music, and specifically this opera, are works-in-progress for me. There are a number of great artistic statements that may confound or confuse me at first but which I know I should keep working at.. Lulu is one of them. It looked amazing though thanks to WK and the video crew.
I also saw the exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016 entitled Thick Time. Now, as in this exhibition, I can’t pretend I was persuaded by everything that Mr Kentridge creates. Yet even in the drawings and videos whose meanings are elusive to me, and there were a few here, there is something compelling which draws you in.
In Thick Time he created six installations the highlight of which, by far, was The Refusal of Time, a meditation on time and fate in which composer Philip Miller provided a hypnotic score to accompany WK’s videos and a “ready-made’ Leonardo-ish “breathing” machine. In Right Into Her Arms WK creates a sort of mini-theatre with a dance drama centred on the disappointment of desire I think. Seven Fragments for George Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon imagined an artist embarking on a series of adventures and was the most obviously Expressionistic of the works with its allusions to early silent cinema.
Here in Smoke, Ashes, Fable the highlight undoubtedly is More Sweetly Play the Dance from 2015. First off it is set in the amazing upstairs room in the Hospital, a cathedral in wood. The works here have all been chosen to reflect the location, but this is the piece which is most evocative. It is based on a medieval Dance of Death. This is a medieval hospital. Across eight massive white panels WK’s charcoal drawing animations see a not quite monochrome processional emerge, drawn from the silhouette of his collaborators. A brass band plays a repetitive tune against this. It is both sombre and celebratory. This Dance of Death though will be more familiar to you from African funeral processions but the characters here seem very different. You literally cannot take your eyes off it and have to sit mesmerised watching at least one, (in my case three), revolutions of the procession. Most everyone there when I visited was drawn in and grinning from ear to ear. For, although this may portray the fragility of human existence, there is something immensely celebratory about the work. Marvellous.
Next door are a set of large scale tapestries which show the silhouettes of African figures, carrying day-today objects, set in maps from the C19. Lives literally carried on their shoulders, a comment on migration perhaps. Downstairs the exhibition opens with drawings and extracts from the monumental 600m long frieze Triumphs and Laments which WK created alongside the Tiber to tell the history of Rome in 2016. I really, really need to see that before it eventually fades away. The installation which titles the exhibition is a little more introspective but still intriguing.
Now I am not saying you should make a special trip to Bruges to see this exhibition, If only for the very good reason that it is now over. But if his work does find a home near you then you must find a way to see it. If you are anywhere near the Reina Sofia in Madrid right now you have just that opportunity in an exhibition centred on his excursions into opera. And later this year he has something cooking in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. There will be other stuff I am sure. Go.