William Kentridge - Evening & Day Editions London Thursday, June 6, 2024 | Phillips
  • In William Kentridge’s Sleeper Black, we are confronted with the body of a naked man who appears in a restless sleep. The Western tradition of the recumbent – mostly female – nude guides the viewer into a seductive voyeuristic gameplay, exemplified in images such as Titian and Giorgione’s 1510 Sleeping Venus. However, there is nothing sexual about Kentridge’s figure, who lies awkwardly on a mortuary table, his body exposed and suffering. The whimsical fancies evoked through the traditional nude are subverted in Sleeper Black's cut-throat immediacy, which draws closer historical parallels to the striking realism of Manet’s 1864 painting The Dead Toreador. Preferring the sharp contrast of black and white, Kentridge’s figure presses his face into his arm in a desperate attempt to ignore the imposing black abyss surrounding him. It is a potent image of denial, deeply rooted in violent history and cultural amnesia.


    Giorgione, Titian, Sleeping Venus, c. 1508-10, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Image: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo

    Created in a time when South Africa had not yet been emancipated from the ruthless clutches of apartheid, Kentridge grounds his imagery inescapably in the country’s tragic history. The body represents the archetypal white South African who, by birthright, benefited from the anti-democratic political system that dictated the everyday life of civilians. In Sleeper Black, the man appears to force himself into sleep in an attempt to remain oblivious to the unpleasant aspects of reality and the insistent cry for political change. Also a metaphor for ignorant bliss, this compelling exploration into the psyche of white South Africans confronts the guilty conscience and the avoidance of accountability for the suffering and exploitation of African land and its people. Kentridge first introduced this poignant sleeping figure in an earlier series of etchings, Ubu Tells the Truth (1997), which foregrounded the brutal and illegal actions undertaken by the South African Defence Force and police during apartheid. Inextricably rooted in bloody history, the confrontational image of the sleeping figure also relates to the collective desire to shield oneself from the personal challenges of the everyday; an emotion embedded in the human experience, and widely understood.


    Edouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, probably 1864, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Widener Collection, 1942.9.40

    Printmaking for Kentridge was perhaps the most suitable vehicle for driving themes of agency and inaction, due to its amenability to experimentation and dissemination. Throughout his printmaking process, certain elements required revising, erasing, and re-creating to different extents, as if the artist was consistently searching the myriad possibilities of the medium. Sleeper Black employs a fusion of traditional techniques including etching, aquatint and drypoint. In addition, the artist used a thick cloth to create texture and tonality to the figure’s fleshy surface. Juxtaposed against the heavily aquatinted background, the luminous body emerges, focusing the eye on the gestural strokes used to shape the undulating body.


    William Kentridge, Ubu Tells the Truth, 1996-97. Artwork: © William Kentridge

    The imagery of the Sleeper Series is drawn from photographs of the artist himself posing in his studio. This quiet element of self-portraiture is perhaps an introspection into Kentridge’s own accountability as a white South African. Born into a family that actively resisted the injustices of the apartheid movement, Kentridge’s self-examination nevertheless draws attention to the multifaceted discourses characterised by racial inequality and his own individual role within this sensitive cultural equilibrium. The forceful imagery explores the dichotomy between agency and inaction, public and private, subjugation and emancipation. Kentridge’s series is a powerful subversion of tradition and a potent symbol of denial. However, the figure cannot evade reality indefinitely; eventually, the sleeper must always wake-up.

    • Provenance

      Acquired from the publisher by the present owner, circa 1997

    • Literature

      see David Krut, William Kentridge Prints, 2006, pp. 66-69


Sleeper Black, from Sleeper Series

Etching, aquatint and drypoint, on Arches paper, the full sheet.
S. 97.5 x 193.5 cm (38 3/8 x 76 1/8 in.)
Signed and numbered 4/50 in white pencil (only 20 impressions of the edition were printed, there were also 5 artist's proofs), published by David Krut Projects, Johannesburg, framed.

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£8,000 - 12,000 

Sold for £9,525

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Evening & Day Editions

London Auction 6 - 7 June 2024