William Kentridge - Modern & Contemporary Art: Evening & Day Sale London Thursday, June 27, 2024 | Phillips
  • “Every encounter with the world is a mixture of that which the world brings to us and what we project on to it. The tree is never just itself.”
    —William Kentridge

    Challenging the boundaries of knowledge through assidious use of metaphor and allegory, William Kentridge works across a wide variety of mediums, exploring memory, imagination, and art's ability to bear witness. Deeply grounded by his life in Johannesburg - the artist’s place of birth in 1955 where he has continued to live and work - Kentridge's drawing practice engages directly with the social and political realities of the region, exploring complex themes related to colonial legacies and conflict, questions of reconciliation and loss, and the fallability and inconsistencies of memory.

    The 'Bad’ Brush


    In his confident and ardoit application of India ink with the ‘bad brush’, in  2nd Hand Reading Kentridge captures the flickering foliage and canopy of the tree that encompasses the length and breadth of the paper’s surface. Intentionally approaching his renderings of trees with splayed, worn brush fibres so as to imitate the spontaneity and unruly movements of the natural world, Kentridge’s view is firmly rooted in his homeland. As the artist explores across his sallowed, barren drawings of the mined Johannesburg landscape, Kentridge’s tree defies the bucolic, pastoral ideal, conjuring a jagged, layered and highly evocative setting.

    “It is only when physically engaged on a drawing that ideas start to emerge. There is a combination between drawing and seeing, between making and assessing, that provokes a part of my mind that otherwise is closed off.”
    —William Kentridge

    Memory, South Africa and the Unknown


    Conscious of the matter and symbolism of his artistic practice, the tree for Kentridge embodies deeply personal experience alongside broader socio-political concerns in post-apartheid South Africa. From a sapling to a totem, Kentridge recalled at nine years old the planting of two white stinkwoods in his childhood garden; following his return to live at his family home two decades later,  the trees that had ‘refused’ to support ‘a hammock’ grew to become ‘magnificent’.i Yet, in a resounding shock, the tree was obliterated after being struck by lightning. The destruction of a monumental being that had accompanied Kentridge through adolescence had a profound existential effect as the artist questioned, ‘If the tree could die, how vulnerable are we or am I?’ii Through drawing in 2nd Hand Reading, Kentridge poetically resurrects memory in a substantive way: paper that was once a tree now representing a tree once again.

    “I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake. I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.”
    —William Kentridge 

    Through a deep, personal understanding of the landscape, the tree has come to embody the tumultuous socio-political realities played out during Kentridge’s upbringing in South Africa. A state that until 1994 and the election of Nelson Mandela had sponsored legalised racism and segregation, the ‘luxury’ of living with a tree without the need for firewood for Kentridge was a painful reminder of the ‘privilege and surplus’ that characterised his childhood as a white individual: asymmetries that continue to shape the present.iii For Jane Taylor, the tree continues to outline the inequalities in Johannesburg ‘within a city built on mine labour, with sprawling townships that are marked for their treelessness’ despite the fact the city has ‘the largest-made forest in the world with over ten million trees’.iv


    While grounded in lived sensations, Kentridge mediates between more abstract, open-ended thoughts. Painted across pages of George Crabb’s nineteenth-century dictionary, the circumscribed definitions and classifications of the printed text are juxtaposed with Kentridge’s assembled phrases from various disparate sources, particularly poetry. In conflating the fixed with more abstract thought, the artist confronts the limitations of epistemological systems, instead encouraging a multiplicity of interpretations through his work and inviting the viewer to bear witness alongside him. 


    William Kentridge’s studio in Johannesburg, 20 April 2018


    Collector’s Digest


    • Training as an actor, then a film maker, before undertaking his ultimately returned to making, William Kentridge’s expansive practice includes sculpture, print making, film and performance alongside painting and drawing.

    • Participating in a range of international biennials, including the Venice Biennale (1993, 1999 and 2005) and Documenta X (1997), XI (2002) and XIII (2012), Kentridge is the recipient of numerous prizes and distinctions including the Praemium Imperiale Award in 2019. In 2015, Kentridge was appointed Honorary Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

    • Major exhibitions of Kentridge’s work have been organised worldwide in pre-eminent institutions including, among many others, the MFA Houston, Texas (2023); The Broad Museum, Los Angeles (2022); the Royal Academy, London (2022) and the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2019).



    i William Kentridge, ‘Guide’, William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember, exh. cat., Sydney, 2018, p. 76.

    ii William Kentridge, ‘Guide’, William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember, exh. cat., Sydney, 2018, p. 76.

    iii William Kentridge, ‘Guide’, William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember, exh. cat., Sydney, 2018, p. 76.

    iv Jane Taylor, ‘Guide’, William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember, Sydney, 2018, p. 76.

    • Provenance

      Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Sydney, Art Gallery​ of New South Wales; Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia, William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember, 8 September 2018-8 September 2019, pp. 76, 149 (illustrated, p.77)

Property of a Distinguished Private Collection


2nd Hand Reading

signed and dated 'KENTRIDGE 2013' lower right
India ink, graphite and coloured pencil with sewing pins on ‘Universal technological dictionary pages’ paper collage on board, in artist's frame
191.6 x 126.1 cm (75 3/8 x 49 5/8 in.)
Executed in 2013.

Full Cataloguing

£100,000 - 150,000 ‡♠

Sold for £203,200

Contact Specialist

Louise Simpson
Associate Specialist
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Modern & Contemporary Art: Evening & Day Sale

London Auction 27 June 2024