An Exhibition With William Kentridge At The Liebieghaus

For the second time, our museum has invited a major figure in contemporary art to enter into dialogue with a collection spanning five thousand years. Curator Vinzenz Brinkmann describes the preparations leading up to the exhibition William Kentridge. O Sentimental Machine.

The idea behind it

One of the great passions of artists, mathematicians and inventors in ancient times was the construction of mechanical devices. Numerous descriptions have survived, for instance of cult statues that moved, or of theatres that functioned by themselves. I had been considering the automata of the ancient Greeks as a possible exhibition subject for some years before I encountered the art of William Kentridge. In his works, this South African artist addresses himself to the aesthetic effects—and indeed the emotional fascination—of movement and animation.

I had first seen works of his at the Städel in Frankfurt in 2007, and was later deeply impressed by the major Kentridge exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna. I found the blend of seemingly light-hearted playfulness manifested by his mechanical constructions with the seriousness of the great historical disasters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries very moving.

A meeting in Rome

Born in Johannesburg in 1955, William Kentridge has for some years now been the focus of worldwide attention. The son of two lawyers who fought for the rights of the non-white population oppressed by apartheid in South Africa, he is an extremely friendly person. Even so, my first attempt to engage him in a conversation that might advance my plan was unsuccessful. In April 2016, Kentridge held a reception in one of Rome’s grand Renaissance rooms to mark the inauguration of his 500-metre-long work Triumphs and Laments on the Tiber embankment. When we met, we did not get beyond the exchange of a few pleasantries, but Kentridge left me with the hope of a future meeting.

an initial discussion in berlin

In July 2016, an opportunity arose to meet William Kentridge informally at the time of his Berlin exhibition “No it is”. Having arrived in Berlin, I spent the morning at this major show in the Martin Gropius Building, and was filled with enthusiasm and respect for the artist. Then I waited to meet him outside the building, as we had arranged by phone at short notice.

Kentridge did not come alone, but with a large number of artists from his team. We sat down at a big table in the museum café, and Kentridge told the painter Stella Olivier, the sculptor and bronze caster Louis Olivier, and the machine designer and cabinet-maker Jonas Lundquist about our joint project in Frankfurt. This indicated to me that he was serious about collaborating with us. I talked about the automata of ancient times, and about how the Greek artists strove to deceive the viewer by creating the illusion of real life (mimesis). I tried to emphasise that, in the fourth century BC, even Aristotle was already describing a fully automated miniature theatre. I also referred to the writings that still survive about the automata invented by Hero of Alexandria. I went on in this vein until I eventually realized that I was carrying coals to Newcastle: Jonas Lundquist was thoroughly familiar with the ancient sources. Since then, it has also become clear to me that Hero’s descriptions have found their way into several of the works designed by Kentridge and Lundquist.

Finally, William Kentridge looked around the table and then, turning to Jonas Lundquist, said that our joint project would be a good opportunity to make a kinetic figure that they had long been planning: an automated espresso jug. As it has turned out, Frankfurt is now in the prestigious position of giving the complex “machine” entitled “Coffee Pot” its first showing.

work sessions in johannesburg

Despite these friendly encounters, we still had not received a firm commitment from the artist. At a meeting between our director, Philipp Demandt, my co-curator Kristin Schrader and myself, we decided that we needed to send a clear signal, and so, although no specific dates had been agreed for the exhibition, a time was fixed for Frau Schrader and myself to visit Kentridge in Johannesburg. This visit in February 2017 proved to be one during which genuine work was done, and we felt that it represented a real breakthrough. We were able to take some basic decisions about the content of the show, very much in line with my initial concept. In addition, we had a unique opportunity to see the workspaces used by Kentridge and his assistants. The extraordinary creativity that manifests itself in Kentridge’s works and productions is supported by numerous art studios both in Johannesburg and outside the city.

planning at the liebieghaus

The meeting in Johannesburg encouraged us in our hopes of being able to mount an impressive exhibition in close collaboration with the artist. We also decided to engage the services of Sabine Theunissen for the scenography. A Belgian stage designer, Theunissen had already been involved in many of William Kentridge’s opera and theatre productions, as well as exhibitions.

In April 2017, William paid us a return visit here at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt. In a very concentrated, combined effort also involving Sabine, we were able to develop and build on the concept for the exhibition, and over the following weeks Sabine and her colleague Marine Fleury moved on to detailed planning. Little by little, they produced a room plan and a delightful model resembling a doll’s house (see picture).

work session in salzburg

Last summer, when William Kentridge and Sabine Theunissen were preparing for the Salzburg Festival production of the opera “Wozzeck”, they both spent several weeks in the city. We met them there to develop our exhibition concept further, but also to continue planning and designing our joint catalogue, which is more in the nature of an artist’s book. For lunch at the Hotel Sacher, we rather predictably had the classic beef dish Tafelspitz. For dessert William insisted on ordering Salzburger Nockerl—probably new to him—which looked like two rounded hillocks and were served on a silver tray.

As we took leave of one another, he said apologetically that he needed to do some more drawings. Weeks later, when we were back in Salzburg for the dress rehearsal of “Wozzeck”, those same Salzburger Nockerl turned up again – as a drawing projected onto the stage.

the setup is complete

It took almost two months to set up the exhibition. Now it fills the Liebieghaus—including the attic rooms known as the studioli. In most of the museum’s spaces, the works by Kentridge encounter pieces from our own collection. However, three large rooms are dominated by Kentridge’s large installations.

One key work that Kentridge developed in collaboration with Lundquist in 2005 has undergone extensive technical refurbishment, and we are delighted that we can at last show it again—“Black Box/Chambre Noir”, a mechanical and automated miniature theatre resembling the automated theatre described by Aristotle, Philo and Hero. Now, however, it relates not an ancient myth but the story of a real event, the brutal extermination of the Hereros and Namas by Prussian forces in the early years of the twentieth century. “Black Box/Chambre Noir” is located in the former large salon, the heart of the villa. The industrialist Heinrich von Liebieg and his wife Karoline spent many hours here, while at the same time the first genocide of the twentieth century was taking place on the continent of Africa.

During your visit to the Liebieghaus, the interventions by William Kentridge are sure to fuel many further trains of thought. We all hope very much that you will derive great pleasure from this remarkable exhibition showcasing an artist of unusual vitality.


Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann

Head of the Collections of Antiquities and Asia

Related articles