Humble giants; flies on the wall

Panther

TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).