Motion captures: William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

As I write, there is just under a fortnight left – including two weekends – to see the Royal Academy’s retrospective of South African artist William Kentridge. I urge you to go if you can.

Kentridge also directs and stages opera, and it’s thanks to English National Opera (‘ENO’) that I first encountered his work. His production of Berg’s ‘Lulu’ during the 2016/17 season (in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera and Dutch National Opera) featured visuals as striking and unforgettable as the music. After exploring his art a little and, now, having the chance to see this superb exhibition, I can see how it all fits into an overarching practice. The characters in ‘Lulu’ genuinely appeared to emerge fully formed from his sets, his art come alive (see the two photos below):

Even in the early drawings, there is so much life and, especially, rhythm. You can feel the movement, even before he starts to investigate animation and film-making (all disciplines handsomely represented in the exhibition). I have always been drawn to graphic design as much as fine art, so another important point of connection for me is Kentridge’s endlessly inventive use of typography and typesetting, fonts, alphabets and linguistic characters, slogans, maps and symbols.

Part of this is that, as an artistic observer of events in South Africa over decades, Kentridge is deeply concerned with language, territory, culture, politics and the media. I have no doubt that the more you know about South Africa, the more you will be able to get out of the work; the sheer amount of content in the pieces – text and imagery – is dazzling. (I knew from about the second room in that I would be buying the catalogue, just to learn more about what I was looking at.)

But as a ‘lay-viewer’, it’s important to emphasise that even if you don’t go into the show armed with that knowledge, you’re likely to come out with a thirst for finding out more, such is the innate power of the work. You may leave punch-drunk, but satisfied. Kentridge’s art is energetic, invigorating, immersive to the point of near-interactivity and – occasionally – overwhelming.

Here is a quick photo-tour from my visit. As I hope some of the pictures show, this can only whet your appetite because so much of this exhibition is on a grand scale, fully taking advantage of the Royal Academy’s vast galleries. Recommended.


This exhibition is on until 11 December 2022.

Photos in this post by AA, apart from the ‘Lulu’ production photos. These were taken at the Metropolitan Opera by Ken Howard and appear in the production gallery on the ENO website.

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