Stone-Age Animation in a Digital World: William Kentridge at MoMA

We’re dazzled by digital animation in Up and Avatar, but William Kentridge delivers as much visual wizardry with a chunk of charcoal.

William Kentridge


After the popularity of Pixar’s Up and the dynamic digital illusions in Avatar, could the next big technical step in animation come from a piece of charcoal?

Opening today at the Museum of Modern Art an exhibition entitled William Kentridge: Five Themes celebrates the work of the enormously influential South African artist who is a dominant force in contemporary art. Kentridge emerged from relative obscurity in the late ’90s with a series of animated films entitled “Nine Drawings for Projection.” These were films of expressionistic drawings done in stop motion technique or what Kentridge calls “stone-age animation.” These were not mere moving comic strips but grand tableaus that offered rich visual narratives executed in charcoal with astounding virtuosity. Accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack they were thematically dark and complex confronting the social and political turmoil of South Africa with total absence of irony that was refreshing.

William Kentridge

To fully appreciate Kentridge’s talent it’s important to understand his process. These films are created using a single charcoal drawing, repeatedly drawn with slight adjustments and rephotographed, frame by frame, to create the illusion of motion. The effects are mesmerizing, Along with his skilled draftsmanship, Kentridge must possess an inconceivable level of patience.

William Kentridge

I’m not sure if it is intentional but this show runs concurrently with the Tim Burton exhibition at MoMA. These two master animators both deal with the “dark side” of life but in radically different ways. Burton’s films, scary but cute, are built for the big screen with Hollywood gloss. Kentridge’s are tough, minimal, and non-commercial. However, both artists demonstrate a real love of drawing.


Kentridge’s films will seduce you as they did me when I first saw them in 2001 at the New Museum in SOHO. But they are only the beginning. His interdisciplinary “portfolio” includes, drawing, painting, theatrical work, sculpture, printmaking, tapestries, live-action film, books, animatronics, opera, collage, acting and directing. This is one busy guy.

William Kentridge

The title of the MoMA show could have been William the Conqueror. This formidable talent has descended on New York and is leaving a large footprint. He performed his theatrical monologue “I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine” to a sold out audience at a performance space in Chelsea. He was the subject of a glowing profile in a recent issue of the New Yorker. On March 5, a Kentridge directed and designed production of Shostakovich’s The Nose will open at The Metropolitan Opera.

This MoMA exhibition is the fourth stop on a world tour that began at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It will continue on to Paris, Vienna, Jerusalem, and will culminate at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in the summer of 2011.

William Kentridge

The show includes over 120 works in ten mediums, with nearly half of the New York presentation drawn from MoMA’s collection of Kentridge’s installations, films, drawings, and prints. This show should be seen by anyone in any creative field. In fact, see it twice.


In an interactive Web site visitors can explore the five major themes in his work and see six new videos that include the artist’s commentary. At the crowded press opening on Tuesday, Kentridge strolled through the exhibition as a real life extension of the persona he portrays through out his work. He looked proud.

Central to William Kentridge’s art is drawing, a humble and often under appreciated skill in the digital age. In his hands simple tools such as charcoal fuel his erudite vision and enable his remarkable versatility. The totality of his creative range and the profound expression of his narrative themes make him incomparable. He is the first superstar artist of the twenty-first century.

All images courtesy MoMA

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Ken Carbone is among America’s
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Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.

About the author

Ken Carbone is a designer, artist, musician, author and teacher. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York City.