Modern art stuns in Bruges: Smoke, Ashes, Fable by William Kentridge

Until the end of February 2018 the St Jan’s Hospital in Bruges is showcasing the work of the contemporary South African artist William Kentridge.

A treat. This is the only way to describe the joy you experience when you climb up the narrow spiral staircase in the St Jan's Hospital Museum in Bruges and are confronted with “More Sweetly Play the Dance”, a key work (2015) by the South African artist Willian Kentridge. The installation that consists of eight enormous panels is shrouded in darkness in the gallery with its atmospheric wood beam ceiling. On the screens we see a parade of figures while loud brass band music deafens our ears. The colourful procession, mainly created in black and white, snakes its way across the panels: a group of African musicians, churchmen and revellers, all having fun in what is a contemporary version of the medieval danse macabre or dance of death.

Margaret Koerner is the curator of the exhibition Smoke, Ashes, Fable: “The video installation deals with questions of healing, death and human fragility and explicitly revisits an artistic genre that flourished during the hospital and the city's heyday in the late Middle Ages: the dance of death.”

William Kentridge (right, pictured here with Till-Holger Borchert, director of Museums Bruges) too was overjoyed by the choice of the location to present his works: “The exhibition is the result of a conversation between the works and their setting” he told flandersnews.

The St Jan's Hospital was founded in the 12th century and is preserved as one of Europe's oldest surviving hospitals. Today, in addition to the temporary exhibition, it showcases the work of the early Netherlandish master Hans Memling, while works by his predecessors, Jan Van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes, hang in the nearby Groeninge Museum.

The South African artist William Kentridge made his international debut at Documenta X in 1997. His works include charcoal drawings, prints, video installations and sculptures. A set of tapestries, the Porter Series (example above), produced at the Marguerite Stephens' studio outside Johannesburg and exhibited together for the first time form a companion piece to More Sweetly Play the Dance. As in the other works the figures are depicted carrying things. William Kentridge: “They are carrying their lives on their shoulders. People in Africa have been familiar with such sights for many years. In Europe this is a more recent phenomenon. Smoke, Ashes, Fable, an early work that gave its name to the exhibition can be admired on the ground floor together with charcoal drawings and charcoal drawing animations as well as magnificent installations.Earlier Kentridge's work has been seen at the Venice Biennial, the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The present exhibition is the first of his work in Belgium.

Bruges burgomaster Renaat Landuyt says it's an honour for Bruges to welcome William Kentridge: “Bruges started a contemporary art festival, the Bruges Triennial. One of the intentions was to stimulate interest in contemporary art in an historic setting and by doing so to make it easier to invest in art infrastructure. By bringing William Kentridge to Bruges we are doing exactly that. Bruges is about to make significant investments in its museums with the creation of a first new major museum in a century.”

Margaret Koerner is the curator of Smoke, Ashes, Fable: “I first discovered Bruges as a graduate student from New York way back in 1994. My heroes were and are Memling and Jan Van Eyck, but it's exciting to work on a living artist who in his work is responding to current events. The present exhibition is not a retrospective, but one curator's view of what might be considered a primer on William Kentridge.”

Kentridge's parents were anti-apartheid lawyers. He has sought a different way of understanding the world. The exhibition includes drawings of how Africa seemed to 19th century Europeans as well as a portrait of a figure familiar to the Belgian public, Patrice Lumumba, Congo's murdered first prime minister.

The work of one Belgian artist is included too: work by the eccentric avant-gardist Marcel Broothaers is contrasted with that of William Kentridge: “Broothaers made such an impact on me when I first saw his work during his first exhibition in New York. I just thought 'how is it possible I didn't know him before'” Mr Kentridge said.

'Smoke, Ashes, Fable' runs at the St Jan's Hospital Museum, Mariastraat 38 in Bruges until 25/2/2018.

'More Sweetly Play the Dance' could earlier be seen in Amsterdam.

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