Reflecting on William Kentridge's printmaking career with Strauss & Co

06 Nov 2023
William Kentridge is the focus of a print exhibition that is part of Strauss & Co's Johannesburg Auction Week (running until Wed, 8 Nov). Together with a spectacular collection of works on display by Kentridge, accompanied by other significant artists working in print, is a series of events – walkabouts, talks, and a children's workshop – that lead up to the live auctions taking place from Mon, Nov 6 – Wed, Nov 8. Printworks form one of the three sessions – the other two sessions showcase an incredible range of modern and contemporary art. 

Read more about the full programme for Auction Week here, and make sure to visit Strauss & Co's Houghton showroom to see these works. 

Kentridge is a once-in-a-generation artist whose sweeping oeuvre transcends medium or genre. His modes of expression have ranged from drawings to operatic productions, and regardless of what medium he employs, his vision is so singular that he bends any medium to his will to express his ideas.  

This is what makes Kentridge so distinct as an artist and his work so unique. Whether you’re viewing a sculpture, a print or a full-scale stage production, his signature is there. As an artist, he is well-explored and well-collaborated, not least of all through the Centre for the Less Good Idea, an arts incubator he co-founded in 2016 in Maboneng, in Johannesburg's City Centre.
William Kentridge working at The Artists' Press. Photo: Strauss & Co.
William Kentridge working at The Artists' Press. Photo: Strauss & Co.

One of the things Kentridge is known for is his hand-drawn animated films, created by filming a drawing, making erasures and additions, and filming it again, slowly teasing out the narrative along the way. His work in theatre has been phenomenally successful too, drawing other artists, performers, musicians and puppeteers into his fold as an art director, and an overall director. Plays that he has worked on include Ubu & the Truth Commission and The Head & The Load, and operas Waiting for the Sibyl, The Nose, and Lulu. In fact, Kentridge had his sights set on becoming an actor but has been quoted as saying, “I was fortunate to discover at a theatre school that I was so bad an actor [... that] I was reduced to an artist, and I made my peace with it.” In this realm, from phenomenal drawings and prints to his involvement with stage productions to tapestries, sculptures and murals, Kentridge is nothing if not prolific.

Drawing these many threads together into a retrospective of Kentridge’s work would be a massive undertaking. On a smaller scale, his long and impressive career as a printmaker comes into particular focus with Strauss & Co’s Defining Impressions, one part of the broader Johannesburg Auction Week line-up. Works on paper spanning Kentridge's decades-long career get in-depth treatment in this inspiring collection, alongside prints from other South African art greats linked chiefly to six major South African printing studios. 
William Kentridge 'Carlton Centre Games Arcade Series'
An early etching on paper from Kentridge's Carlton Centre Games Arcade series, one of the rarer lots up for auction. Photo: Strauss & Co.

What makes prints special?

Prints differ from reproductions in that they’re unique. Rather than a direct copy, a print is an impression of an image made on a substrate, which is inked up and transferred onto a sheet of paper. This manual process allows for subtle, or sometimes rather dramatic, differences to occur from print to print. The medium matters too: there are copper-plate etchings, woodcut prints, screen prints and lithographs, each wielded by artists and printmakers to varying effect. While more than one image can, and usually is, pulled from the same plate, each impression – called the edition – is still an original. 

As Kentridge explains, "At the other side of the press is a version of your drawing that is different from the marks originally made. A separation, as if some other hand had made the print. Not only will the image pulled from the press be reversed left and right, but in the case of dry point, the ink wiped into furrows thrown up by the stylus' cut [on the copper plate] will ooze from the weight of the press into unforeseeable smudges." 
Mantegna by William Kentridge
A dramatic procession occurs in Mantegna by William Kentridge, a woodcut on paper. Photo: Strauss & Co.

William Kentridge as printmaker

Printmaking is fundamental to Kentridge’s art practice, cutting his teeth in the mid-'70s with screen-printed posters for trade unions, student protests and theatre companies. Defining works from his early days include the Pit series of monotypes and the small-format etchings which he called the Domestic Scenes. “Over the last 30 years,” he says, “printmaking has been close to the centre of the work I have done. Prints have never been a side journey or in the margins… at art school after studying painting it was an enormous relief and pleasure to discover the medium of etching… and having started etching I could move forward into drawing, specifically into drawing with charcoal, which I began a few years later as an extension of printmaking.”

He studied and later taught etching at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and has since produced over 300 prints in dry point, etching, engraving, silkscreen, lithography and linocut. In the late '90s, Kentridge produced a portfolio of eight prints titled Ubu Tells the Truth based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi. With a profound respect for tradition, his graphic work joins the chorus of his predecessors such as Hogarth and Goya, employing the medium for satire and social commentary. Kentridge writes that his drawings don’t begin with a ‘beautiful mark.’ For him, printmaking is the activity of getting the hand to lead the brain, rather than the other way around.
Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot by William Kentridge
Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot, a lithograph and collage on paper, shows Kentridge at his playful best. Photo: Strauss & Co.

Kentridge is generous with his output, supporting many of South Africa’s major print studios. In Defining Impressions we see some of the artist’s earliest work, like a rare Carlton Centre Games Arcade series etching. Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot shows Kentridge up at his playful best and is a prime example of his method of combining printmaking with collage. Many of the prints in this exhibition talk to one another, being either from the same period or through the use of recurring motifs. Shadow figures in procession, for instance, are seen repeatedly – including in the form of four spectacular sculptures, which you’ll spot in the Modern and Contemporary Art evening sale pre-exhibition next door. Kentridge is a gem of an artist in this respect; the more you engage with his work, the richer it becomes.
My Dear Friend (He that Fled his Fate) - Mbinda Cemetary by William Kentridge
My Dear Friend (He that Fled his Fate) – Mbinda Cemetary, one of Kentridge's colour screenprints on paper. Photo: Strauss & Co.

Bid on Kentridge and other art giants at Johannesburg Auction Week

A superb exhibition, guided walkabouts and online talks and lectures accompany Strauss & Co's latest sale, part of a bumper Johannesburg Auction Week programme. Kentridge's wonderful works on paper have nearly an entire exhibition space to themselves, highlighting his collaboration with The Artists' PressThe Caversham Press, David Krut Workshop and other local studios. 

Three pre-auction exhibitions are on view at Strauss & Co's Houghton showroom daily from 10:00 – 16:00 until Tue, Nov 7 and feature some museum-quality pieces that will soon disappear into private collections. Whether you intend to bid or not, they're all well worth seeing.

To find out more about the printmaking process and hear from leading print-makers, head to Strauss&Co on YouTube for an amazing series of video interviews with key printmakers. 



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