The story goes that William Kentridge decided to make a new gate for his home in a leafy Joburg suburb. He cut two cats out of sheet metal and discarded the off-cuts. A few days later he was astonished to find the off-cuts being actively marketed as “William Kentridge originals”. Which they were in a way. The story is vaguely plausible given the great man's current fascination with cats, however even if it is pure urban myth, it gives you some inkling of the massive reputation of the artist. But even despite this you are forgiven for not knowing to whom I am referring. A quick survey of normally well-informed friends and colleagues revealed an unexpectedly low level of awareness of the man who has been called “undoubtedly the best known South African artist”.
Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1955 and after completing a degree in Political Science and African Studies at Wits, moved to Paris to study mime. However he soon turned to art when he found out what a bad actor he was. He is not a “traditional” artist working in oils on canvas but rather uses a number of the less traditional art techniques such as drawing, etching, printmaking, animated film, opera and even tapestry. He wins awards wherever he goes and won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award in 1987 as well as the highly prestigious Kyoto Prize in 2010, which is the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
And where he doesn't win awards he receives honorary degrees, with degrees from Wits and the University of London already added to his tally. He has exhibited across the world, from Johannesburg to Chicago, and Moscow to Sydney, in leading galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris. But other than a number of impressive stats, why is he important? Why are some of his drawings now fetching over a million rand at auction? And why is his name being mentioned in the same breath as Picasso?
The answer appears to be pure genius. This is an artist who is described in superlatives: amazing, impassioned, brilliant, legendary, colossal and most of all, a phenomenal intellect. And no, this wasn't his family I was talking to. David Krut of David Krut Publishing says simply that William Kentridge is “famous for his brainpower”. He explains that when buying art for the long term (and possibly long term investment) it is key to look at the intellect of the artist to see if the work will endure. With Kentridge he believes this to be without question. Kentridge's genius is revealed in his wide range of skills, cutting-edge imagery, razor-sharp social commentary and prolific output. With that short description you could possibly see the similarities to Picasso.
So is Mr Kentridge's work an investment opportunity? Sadly for those with smaller art budgets, his vast international appeal has already driven prices of major pieces through the roof. However, Kentridge fortunately is an artist who works on edition prints, meaning he creates the image on a copper plate which is then printed in a limited edition of 20 to 50 prints. This allows his work to reach a wider audience and be more affordable. After the edition is sold out the publisher usually destroys the copper plate either by cutting it into pieces or by scoring through the image, ensuring that no further prints can be made thereby preserving the value of the edition.
Recent works are generally available between R15,000 and R100,000 although there are works significantly more expensive, with older works generally more costly. For example, the image above, entitled Scribble Cat and completed in 2010, is 102 x 179.8cm large and is one of an edition of 30. Unframed and ex-VAT it can be had for a cool R320,000.
However other works which may be of lesser quality or smaller would be far cheaper. And if you're in it for the long haul, the works appear very likely to hold their value.
Kentridge has also had wide exposure through his operas. You may remember the staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which took over Johannesburg a few years back. RMB sponsored the event and had a massive banner down the side of their Sandton head office for months. I've always been a fan but it was at this opera that he gained my undying admiration. As is typical for opera all the dialogue was sung and in German to boot. Unless you're a very educated connoisseur you're going to be left behind. But not with this opera. Aside from providing fantastical stage sets and truly “magical” costumery, the gracious Mr Kentridge also provided subtitles in English. Bravo Maestro! asa
Author: Jennifer Ferreira CA(SA), BBdgArts, BCompt (Hons), is a financial manager at The Unlimited.