The Biography Of William Kentridge & His Films

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The man in pinstriped suit sitting on deckchair (Art Gallery NSW, 2015) This contemporary artwork is an iconic stop-motion animation composed of about 30 pieces of drawings, created by charcoal and pa

stels eraser on chamois leather. It is one of William Kentridge’s nine short films between 1989 and 2003 for a series called ‘drawings projection’. The series portray the life of a fictional South African domineer industrialist, Soho Eckstein. Six years later since William Kentridge’s last film, he selected the grounding scene of a beach in Cape Town to create this 9-minute film, (Smith, 2010) to relink his character Soho into a wider world, and to test creative drawing techniques by depicting breaking waves. The film is basically constructed on the perspective of a man in pinstriped suit who was seated in a deckchair on the beach; alongside the background of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, and the country’s turbulent political situation. (Kasfir 2014, pp. 128-134)

William Kentridge’s parents are both lawyers who actively helped people struggle against racial discrimination and unequal socioeconomic law systems. He has witnessed many crucial treatments to the underclass or people except whites in his childhood. (Kinsman, 2015) There are sources that reflect the artist’s judgement on the natural world in the film: the normal beach hut suddenly turns into a crowding hospital reflects the true society; a group of cows eventually became a pile of skeleton left on sandy bay, which symbols of vulnerable groups in south Africa. These plots are series of metaphors of the history, are assimilation of social history. In addition, they portray that how the history or the society influences on one’s life or mind since artwork has different impact between different audiences, between the artist himself and the audience. William Kentridge once said in an interview: I am not taking policy into art, instead I learn about complicity in human policy by the means of art. (Kentridge, 2015)

William Kentridge completed the work simply by charcoal and eraser. He firstly drew a key frame on the paper, and captured one or two frames by a film camera, then erased or amended certain area and thus create the next frame. The process was replicated again and again to produce a film. (Rose, 2015) Although the drawings have numerous defects of the erasures, but these erasures in turn proved how the artist made each frame and what kind of materiality and method have been employed. In such way, more concepts and thoughts could be perceived by the audience. The erasures are also continuous and unintentional, records the passage of time, as if he keeps the memory of time, filled with imagination and tension. Past history has already gone but there must exist traces somewhere, just like the erasures left on the paper. As the name of the series drawing suggests, Thicken Time, erasure makes the time more palpable and existing in the process of drawing, within the spread of the film. Moreover, smudges of erasure helped him record his idea because William Kentridge has no scripts or storyboards before the work was commenced. (Kentridge, 2015).

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Most of the work is depended on his experience and consciousness method that existed between the contingency and his original intents. The concepts are produced from the form, from the medium and the drawing material. A following frame is revived during the process of making the previous frame. Tide Table presents several points that worth critically thinking about. First, the man in pinstriped suit forms a huge contrast between the beach and its context, which arouses curiosity and doubt about why he is sitting there and why he is dressed in such uncoordinated suits. He is watching the quotes of stock market; however, the situation seemed not to be optimistic since the curve is falling down; Second, three generals stands at the balcony of a gorgeous building, looking into the distance with telescopes without expression, but they are separated by two thick concrete walls. The architectural elements symbol of gaps between the government and common people, conflicts among different races. The generals’ unreadable expression on their faces strengthen the conflicts.

Third, a normal beach hut suddenly turns into a hospital, filled with patients, prayers, and even death; a group of cows eventually became a pile of skeleton while the sine curves of the tide table declining. All these elements came together on the beach, implied that the nation and the society were experiencing socioeconomic turbulence and common people were in suffer; Last, the young boy didn’t have any contact with the man, but followed the lens we can sensed the relationship or invisible communication between Soho and the boy. The boy existed in the film as a wish or desire that belongs to Kentridge, which is a protected and ideal world without considering any classification and discrimination. William Kentridge tried to utilize these emblematic elements to reflect and satirize the society where he grew up.

When William Kentridge made the film Tide Table, he was at the similar age as his grandfather, so the figure Soho in the film is partly his grandfather and partly himself. The boy in white symbols of his father but and partly his son Samuel. In the end, the film became as the relationship between Soho himself and the younger Soho, came to concentrate on the relationship between one’s older to one’s younger self. (Kentridge 2015, pp. 348-355) If one encounters his early self, could it be very embarrassed for both of them, questioning about who he is. Or perhaps it would be better to stand away and look at him, reflect the path he came along, wish the younger self could make the right decision, go on the right track. The frame connects more to a father’s aspiration and wish to his child. Time is compressed in the encounter; four generations were having an invisible conversation in the picture. The transition from the boy to Soho has much more deep meaning than the initial imagination.

William Kentridge is a master at using emblematic elements to reflect the history, society, and time. The background and concepts were originally constructed on his subconscious experience, but then concepts became various as he proceeds to draw. Each picture of Tide Table seems to have less relationship to one another but they did become a complete story that every character and elements could not be absent. This kind of artistic effect was given by the methodology that William Kentridge was taken: based on the drawing tools and his living contexts, relying on a consciousness method instead of preparing a storyboard beforehand. The image aroused in his mind from random and conscious premeditation will be the impromptu storyboard.


  1. Art Gallery NSW (2015). The man in pinstriped suit sitting on deckchair. [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].
  2. George Eastman Museum (2017). The young boy and his nanny. [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2018].
  3. Kasfir, S. (2014). Contemporary African art. London: Thames & Hudson, pp.128-134.
  4. Kentridge, M. (2015). The Soho chronicles. Salt Lake City: Seagull Books, pp.348-355.
  5. Kentridge, W. (2015). Masters of our time. Kinsman, J. (2015). William Kentridge: Drawn from Africa. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2018].
  6. National Museum of Modern and Contempreray Art, Korea (2018). The huts turns into a hospital and a cowshed. [image] Available at: [Accessed 27 Sep. 2018].
  7. Rose, J. (2015). William Kentridge, drawing from Tide Table (Soho in Deck Chair) – Smarthistory. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Sep. 2018].
  8. Smith, R. (2010). Anger and Angst, Explored With Animation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Oct. 2018].
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