William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments

Created with a technique deliberately ephemeral, Kentridge’s monumental frieze along the River Tiber offers a reading of the history of Rome, which contrasts splendour and misery, glory and defeat.

William Kentridge
The monumental frieze created by William Kentridge on the banks of the Tiber is like an unravelled triumphal column. The 80 images in procession in fact recall the scenes engraved on Trajan’s column, without however following any particular time order or story line; it is a series of symbols, archetypes and events which have been freely reinterpreted by the talented South African artist to tell his version of Rome’s history.
William Kentridge
Top : William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments , Caligola. Photo Marcello Leotta. Above : William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments , detail. Photo Giulia Carpignoli
Thus a bust of Cicero, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and the finding of Aldo Moro’s body live side by side, in a metahistorical space which is governed solely by emotive memory. Associations which superimpose the distant past with the more topical present: the widows of Roman soldiers and those of the refugees in Lampedusa, Remo killed by Romolo and fire-fighters at work after the bombing of the San Lorenzo area in 1943.
William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments , detail. Photo Giulia Carpignoli
Triumphs and Laments – the title of the work – offers a reading of a multifaceted history which contrasts splendour and misery, glory and defeat; because every triumph leads to a lament, a loss, a mourning, and for every winner there is always a loser. Lending form to this ambivalence, in the procession Kentridge has chosen to depict the simulacrum of the Winged Goddess Victoria in three versions: first solid and strong, then fractured by cracks, and finally reduced to a pile of rubble. In the same way he transforms the many equestrian monuments which celebrate triumphs into idols: Trojan horses which reveal their internal structures and crumble to the ground, becoming mere symbols of the vanity of humankind. Even the sovereign symbol of Rome is de-constructed: the she-wolf who nurtures the first king of Rome is shown gaunt, empty, reduced to a bony carcass. It is the intrinsic dualism of life that lies at the heart of this imposing series of figures, constructed on a play of opposites which alternate and complete each other.
William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments , piazza Tevere
The monumental nature of the frieze, 550 metres long and 10 metres high, is contrasted by the very technique used to create it, deliberately ephemeral and fragile. The work has been created by removing the organic build-up deposited over time on the stone, a layer which will slowly return, until every sign, every trace of this great frieze has been cancelled. It is an organic process: Kentridge has chosen to work with living matter, which cannot be governed by man, but which, on the contrary, will inexorably have the upper hand over his creation in a process which is a metaphor for the cycle of life, made up of birth and death and our total instability.
William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments . Photo Sebastiano Luciano
What is deeply striking about the work is the natural way it integrates into the surroundings; walking along the banks of the Tiber and looking out from the high walls, one can easily believe that it has been there since time immemorial, that it has always been there. In the same way that, in Rome, it is not unusual to find a Corinthian column head re-used to form part of Renaissance architecture, or a Roman temple transformed into a Christian church, the great frieze already looks like an archaeological find which is harmoniously integrated into the surrounding context.
William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments . Photo Sebastiano Luciano

Kentridge has therefore managed to capture the very essence of the city, to represent the sense of passing time, of the cultures and eras which follow one another, of the richness of stratification; understanding how much Rome is a sophisticated example of beauty born of contamination.

The theme of superimposition and grafting is related to the artist’s favourite practice, animated drawing. His most famous works, Drawings for projection, are films which develop on a single sheet where, through the use of malleable techniques such as charcoal, the artist creates, subtracts, adds and cancels figures and characters. A powerful and pre-verbal form of expression, made of images which transform and change at the speed of thought, where the hand and the mind are directly connected and where a body can become a mountain or the palm of a hand becomes a lake. Triumphs and Laments is also tied to metamorphosis, not only because its figures are often shown in change and transformation, but for its gradual process of cancellation which recalls the running time of a film. The cinema and its narrative methods are key points of the artist’s poetry which, in this work, recall and re-elaborate our grand masters.

William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments . Photo Diane Roehm

Thus, Fellini is remembered in La dolce vita, however Anita and Marcello are no longer depicted embracing in the Trevi fountain, but in an old bathtub. Rossellini on the other hand is cited to the letter, the symbolic image of Anna Magnani dead in Roma città aperta is the same, while Pasolini and his massacred body become metaphors for a universal pain and recall the many assassinated men seen by Kentridge in Africa during the years of apartheid and which always return to his works, where political reflection is an essential characteristic.

In addition to the cinema, theatre and dance are fundamental forms of expression for this great contemporary master. One must not forget that he studied them, together with mime, from a very early age, and has worked as both actor and director. Music has also played a central role in his poetry of contamination among the arts.

William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Triumphs and Laments . Photo Sebastiano Luciano
The performance on 21 April which inaugurated the work in a single great flow before a large audience is the result of the fusion of all of these diverse creative disciplines. During the evening, two processions began from opposite sides of the river-side, one from the Mazzini bridge and the other from the Sisto bridge, to meet in the centre. The characters marched, raising symbols and effigies and casting shadows which, like in Plato’s allegory of the cave, are cognitive instruments of reality for Kentridge. In the procession a Mandinka song of African slaves, an age-old popular song from Southern Italy, and a Zulu warrior battle cry blended together to become one with the words of the poet Rilke: That is the longing: to dwell amidst the waves / and have no homeland in time.
What better tribute to the city know universally as eternal, where everything seems to be both immobile and, at the same time, in perpetual motion, just like the waters of the Tiber.
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