This silkscreen triptych originated out of a clandestine poster project in 1986 that, although unrealised, was intended to coincide with celebrations marking the centenary of Johannesburg.1 Kentridge was asked to join a group of people working against the centenary, this at a time of widespread social unrest and state repression. For his contribution Kentridge created a drawing titled Johannesburg 100 Years of Easy Living: What Cause to Celebrate? Although abandoned, the drawing informed his composition Art in a State of Siege, which features an early precursor of his corpulent Johannesburg industrialist Soho Eckstein. Indeed, all three Neo-Expressionist compositions feature motifs typical of Kentridge’s practice of the period (aristocratic suburbanites, industrial landscapes, megaphones, Constructivist pavilions). The titles of the individual works chart three distinctive artistic positions: that of Grace, Hope and Siege. Grace, elaborated Kentridge in a lecture in Grahamstown in 1986, was a romantic or lyrical vision of art removed form society, which he regarded as personally “inadmissible”.2 By contrast, Hope represented an activist conception of art, which his links in his composition to the impossible idealism of Vladimir Tatlin’s unfulfilled Monument to the Third International (1919–20). Siege represented a synthesis of the former two poles: in this latter mode art is “neither submerged by a programme outside itself,” nor does it see itself as separate from society, but rather hopes to work with “open-ended questions and arrive at meaning through the activity of making the work”.3 This proposition still fairly reflects how Kentridge works. Printed on brown paper by Malcolm Christian at the Caversham Press and bonded onto crème-coloured Vélin d'Arches paper, MoMA print curator Judith B Hecker has characterised this triptych as a seminal work.4
1. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (ed.) (2006) William Kentridge Prints, Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing. Another print from the same edition illustrated on page 34.
2. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (1998) William Kentridge, Brussels: Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts. Another print from the same edition illustrated on page 55.
3. Law-Viljoen, op.cit., page 34.
4. Judith B Hecker (2010) William Kentridge: Trace: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York: Museum of Modern Art, page 58.
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and JM Coetzee (1999) William Kentridge, London: Phaidon. Another impression from the same edition illustrated in colour on page 108.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2001) William Kentridge, Chicago and New York: Museum of Contemporary Art and New Museum of Contemporary Art. Another impression from the same edition illustrated in colour on pages 78 and 79.
Bronwyn Law Viljoen (ed) (2006) William Kentridge Prints, David Krut: Johannesburg. Another impression from the same edition illustrated in colour on pages 34 and 35.
Mark Rosenthal (2009) William Kentridge: Five Themes, San Francisco and New Haven: San Francisco Museum of Art and Yale University Press. Another impression from the same edition illustrated in colour on page 38.