Upon my first visit to the William Kentridge: Five Themes exhibition, I confess that I was not initially drawn to the opening piece, Self Portrait (Testing the Library), for purely aesthetic reasons.
Yes, the work is arresting, conveying a particular depth through its smeared charcoal medium, and yes, it is the self-portrait of the artist whose exhibit I was about to enter. These facts should have been reason enough for me to stop and linger over it a while. However, the real reason that I paused before this particular work was because I had noticed one simple thing: Kentridge had sketched his portrait on pages torn from a selection of books. This, apparently, was enough to stop me in my tracks.
Being one of those people who notices what book someone is reading before noticing their outfit, my inner bibliophile became instantly and insatiably curious. Which books did these pages come from? Why were they used? Was Kentridge trying to make a statement about himself, or his work, through his use of certain literary subject matter?
Closer inspection revealed that Kentridge utilized a wide variety of literary sources for his self-portrait, including a page from a French encyclopedia, an index from a map of Europe (focused on Sweden and Syria), an excerpt from a Latin translation of The Aeneid, part of a Greek play (in the original Greek), page 369 from Logic and The Structure of the Universe, and a “D” page from an English dictionary. It would be difficult to imagine a more random collection of literature, and I was thoroughly intrigued.
After all, people are drawn to books for different reasons, to fulfill different needs. Some readers seek knowledge, others seek temporary escapes through entertaining stories. Some people are looking for answers to life's philosophical quandaries, and peruse volumes in search of spiritual enlightenment or intellectual inspiration. (A theme which, it just so happens, is reflected perfectly in Anselm Kiefer's Book with Wings, featured in the Modern's permanent collection.)
Kentridge, it turns out, incorporates literature into his work for at least one, (and often more than one,) of these various reasons. His Bridge, depicting farm workers crossing from one side (of the Atlantic?) to the other, is structurally supported by such examples of classic Western literature as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales and Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, in addition to several volumes of Civilization in England. Also featured within the exhibit are several processional works of figures cut out from the pages of a French dictionary and Anatomy of Vertebrates. One of Kentridge's films, Journey to the Moon, portrays books as simultaneous sources of artistic inspiration and means of mental escape from his stifling studio, as pages depicting charcoal-drawn images fly across the room and into his hands, where he scrutinizes them under the gaze of a telescopic espresso cup.
Self Portrait (Testing the Library) made me realize that the tactile pages of books—the actual foundation upon which literature is created— are themselves an artistic medium. We relate to a variety of subjects through type-filled pages, but these pages also allow us means to reflect on ourselves. Ultimately, Kentridge portrays literature, as he portrays his other media, as an intermediary of sorts: bridging the gap between reality and fiction, absence and epiphany, artist and idea.