Trees have played an important role in the development of Kentridge’s artistic lexicon and have been present in his work in a variety
of forms, the power of the trope ringing out in different ways through a number of Kentridge’s bodies of work.
Kentridge has spoken frequently about the influence that images and ideas of trees have had in his life, and the ways in which these have become integrated into his work. In a lecture given at Berlin Mosse in 2014, Kentridge talks of the “tree as lehrstück” or the “lesson play” associated with Bertolt Brecht’s epic genre of theatre that explored acting as a route to learning; of the reluctance of a Swedish boat builder who worked on Kentridge’s Black Box project to use German oak, because of the shrapnel contained in the wood, and of the strange sense of “trees still living holding the history in them.” In the same lecture, Kentridge ruminates on our ability to “meet the tree halfway” in our construction of meaning around it, and on the porousness of knowledge.
In another lecture, delivered as part of his Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Contemporary Art at Oxford University in May 2013, Kentridge remembers mishearing a word – tree-search, instead of t-shirt – and suddenly “in half a second, a whole etymology and history and examples of tree-searches unfolded.” In another instance of mis-heard words, Kentridge’s memory of his father working on the Treason Trial, or the “trees and tile” to his boyhood ears, has yielded innumerable metaphors for understanding the relationship between what we know and how we experience the world, piecing together fragments and fitting them together as we wend our way through the complex forest of history. In a conversation with Jane Taylor, Kentridge also recalls his frustration as a child that two white stinkwood trees at his family home in Houghton seemed to refuse to grow big enough to suspend a hammock between them, and his grief at the death of one of these trees during a lightning storm, many years later when he returned to occupy the same home in which he grew up. Over the course of decades, Kentridge has drawn out the metaphorical richness that trees offer to sense-making within his multidisciplinary practice: “a tree you could disassemble into its pages and hide in a library, like hiding a book in a forest.”
The fact that Kentridge’s hometown and the locus of much of his work is Johannesburg, often called the largest
human-made forest, cannot be overlooked.
Text by Jacqueline Flint, 2022
Courtesy David Krut Projects
Beckmann's Self Portrait with Jam Jar and Scissors
Direct gravure with drypoint
56.5cm x 50cm (22¼” x 19½”)
Edition size 36
The title of this print refers to the German painter Max Beckmann, who was determined in his pursual of narrative figuration at a time when his contemporaries were leaning heavily towards abstraction. Commonly classified as contributing to the Expressionist movement, Beckmann refused both movement and classification, making him an anti-hero within the narrative of his time.
This direct gravure print with drypoint has its origins in an image Kentridge hand-painted on dictionary paper with India ink in his studio. In the image, Beckmann’s portrait – a reference to Self-Portrait in Tuxedo in oil on canvas that hangs in the Busch-Reisinger Museum of the Harvard University Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts – lies on the table, flanked by a pair of scissors and a jam jar filled with flowers. Not uncommon in Kentridge’s own oeuvre, this juxtaposition of ordinary objects with scholarly, highbrow references nods a head to Beckmann’s dedicated desire to engage in “a raw, average vulgar art, which doesn’t live between sleepy fairy-tale moods and poetry but rather concedes a direct entrance to the fearful, commonplace, splendid and the average grotesque banality in life.”
Published by Jillian Ross Print and David Krut Projects
Collaborating Master Printer Jillian Ross
Photogravure by Steven Dixon, Luke Johnson, Alex Thompson (Edmonton, Canada)
Editioning and image development at David Krut Workshop (South Africa)
Editioning printers Sbongiseni Khulu, Sarah Judge