If anyone doubts the importance of William Kentridge, “Five Themes,” a sprawling exhibition at SFMOMA through May 31, establishes him as one of the most profound artists working today. During his 30-year career, the South African artist has created and directed operas, designed sets, cast bronze sculpture, animated shadow puppets and worked as an actor; and he channels that experience into films that grab at the subconscious and don’t let go. This is one the strongest shows the museum has ever mounted.
propagandistic graphics that gleefully dance before our eyes, asserting the optimism of the movement. Red-tinged, collaged and geometrically sharp-edged, they feel fresh and revolutionary even now. In contrast, documentary footage of Russian workers marching in a parade and a projection of dialog from the interrogation of Nikolai Bukharin by the Communist Party’s Central Committee cast a pall: the parade because we know how so many workers’ lives ended; the “trial” because it demonstrates how the Soviet system extinguished the souls of even its most loyal lieutenants. As for the nose itself, the most telling sequence has Kentridge climbing (and repeatedly falling down) a staircase wearing an outsized nose over his head like a giant mask. It’s a Sisyphean metaphor for the thwarted aspirations of any number of failed states.