No, it’s not Kentridge’s nose, nor does the nose even know whose nose it is. Could it be Shostakovich’s nose, or Gogol’s nose? Well no, this nose is most definitely Kovalyov’s nose, “the devil knows,” whose nose, he says. But when he woke this morning, Collegiate Assessor (Major) Kovalyov had no nose. This peripatetic nose, it seems, is off on a jaunt; having escaped overnight from Kovalyov’s sleeping face and then from a loaf of bread into which Barber Ivan Yakovlevitch had made a fresh cut for his breakfast (don’t ask how the nose got into the bread loaf—this is a fable, after all), the nose, now in full mufti, is seen taking the air along Nevsky Prospect. This nose acts to be his own nose, no one else’s, though a much too high-held nose to deign even a glance at Kovalyov’s now nose-less, pancake-flat, face.
This demonic fable satirizing mid-nineteenth century Czarist bureaucracy had lost none of its acerbic edge almost a full century after its publication in 1836 when it became the subject of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, nor another eighty years after that when South African artist-filmmaker William Kentridge accepted an invitation from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to design and direct an opera; he chose The Nose, the Met’s first ever production of this avant-garde and still wildly bizarre opera. The Nose was performed this past March in a series of sold out performances that ran concurrently with a comprehensive retrospective of Kentridge’s drawing, prints and animated films at MOMA on 53rd Street, a fifteen-minute stroll from Lincoln Center.
William Kentridge grew up in apartheid South Africa in a privileged white family that had a strong tradition of jurisprudence His family’s liberal history fairly demanded that he pursue a career in the law to combat the entrenched institutional racism then dominant in national politics. But this career path was not to be. Even from his youth, there was something of the performing artist in Kentridge and though his early work followed a normal channel of artistic pursuit with studies in Paris, Kentridge returned to Johannesburg and became involved in theater. Only a short time passed before his drawings and maquettes began to be a part of local experimental theater in a mode now deemed installation/performance art. At the same time, during the waning years of apartheid and well into the late 90s, Kentridge created nine distinctly sui generis animated films that when finished he called 9 Drawings for Projection.
These short films follow the fortunes of a business suit-clad industrialist named Solo Eckstein and his almost always nude nemesis, Felix Titelbaum, a gentle and somewhat aimless soul who is his rival for the attention of Soho’s nameless wife. These films, which show an increasingly accomplished animation style that is deliberately low-tech in its exploration of South Africa’s societal malaise and racism, provide the central framework for the MOMA show titled “William Kentridge Five Themes.”
Individual galleries display the films as large wall projections. The sixth in the series, featuring a nearly dead Eckstein in a hospital room and titled History of the Main Complaint, was made shortly after the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu. It explores the unrepentant ethos of a moribund white culture now on life support, as embodied in the figure of Eckstein. The music is a haunting Monteverdi madrigal. If you go directly to the YouTube site rather than the embedded clip here in the blog, there is a dropdown text that provides a detailed explanation of this less than six-minute film. You may want to read it before viewing the film itself:
The last room of the MOMA exhibition moves beyond the single screen projections into a gallery that bombards you as you enter—with eight simultaneous film clips and running text covering every bit of its four walls. This installation is called “I am not me, the horse is not mine.” It proves to be both a working research lab for Kentridge as well as a source of background projection material for scenes in the Met production of The Nose.
Nothing can begin to replicate the dazzling visual and aural madness in this gallery, but here is a brief trailer than gives glimpses of the mash-up of Soviet era news clips, avant-garde graphics à la El Lissitzky, and Kentridge’s animation—all in a collage that encapsulates the hectic pace of the production.
The costumes and sets also evoke the spirit of the heady days of pre-Stalinist theater. Here are costume maquettes for the production:
Shostakovich was a Wunderkind still in his early-twenties when The Nose was premiered. The crazed cacophony of the score assured a rapturous reception by the Leningrad artistic avant-garde, which was only beginning to feel the repressive power of the still young Stalinist era. A new decade had begun, one that was to become a cesspool of death, reaching its nadir in the Moscow show trials of the mid 30s. Shostakovich’s second opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District fell victim to Stalin's ire; he walked out on it during a performance in January of 1936. Two days later the composer was pilloried in Pravda, and the opera was withdrawn. He never wrote another. Shostakovich did not lose his life for his art. But many other artists and public figures did, even once staunch allies of the revolution such as Nicolai Bukharin. At one time powerfully posed at Stalin’s side, Bukharin now gave vent to his helpless pleas of innocence in the face of farcical interrogations by the plenum of the Central Committee on February 26, 1937. In mixed desperation and irony, he quoted the old Russian proverb that denies thievery, “I am not me, the horse is not mine.” It was the response of a sane man to the paranoia and madness around him. Another of his comments, “No one believes in human feelings anymore,” was met with ridicule by the plenum. Bukharin was duly executed.
The opera’s absurdist, even Kafkaesque, milieu, soon to become a daily, horrid reality, is anticipated by Shostakovich in the work’s strident score, and it is further adumbrated by William Kentridge in the bizarre, surreal sets and film projections. In a lucid yet brief video, Kentridge explains how all the seemingly disparate visual elements he has constructed blend into the opera’s tapestry, and how the political anger and satire of Gogol’s tale reaches across time and culture from mid -nineteenth century Czarist era, to Stalin, to the brutality of his own South African apartheid culture. A tall order for a four-minute clip but here it is:
When Kentridge performs “I am not me, the horse is not mine”, as he did recently at MOMA, he utilizes his multi-media portfolio to evoke the manic spirit of twenties Russian arts before the Stalinist deluge: Dziga-Vertov and Eisenstein’s film theories, Meyerhold’s concept of theater, Tatlin and Rodchenko’s spatial rhythms. Even the poetry of Mayakovsky finds space on the crowded stage of Kentridge’s historical allusions and homages. With this recent work he has moved beyond his signature animation style; it is here that Kentridge has become himself an almost Gogolesque character in the complex tapestry of his performance. It is though he has morphed into some real life incarnation of a composite figure from his earlier animations.
In the next video, Kentridge is giving a presentation (bear with the poor camerawork) of the philosophical construct of “ I am not me, the horse is not mine”, even as he and his doppelgangers and stop-motion hands are projected as film background to the foreground lecture. He draws on both Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Cervantes’ Don Quixote via his horse, Rosinante, as metaphors of desperation in a distressed society.
Even though Kentridge has created a framework for an avant-garde theater production that is cloaked in the commodious mantle of the huge MetOpera stage, it is the music that is front and center and Shostakovich’s score is nearly as startling today as it must have been in January of 1930 at the Leningrad premiere. The opera already had been staged in parts the previous year and was well enough known to have been subjected to charges of “formalism” by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians even before the premiere, the moniker of “formalism” being hung like lead weights on the composer throughout his life. To hear just how forward-looking the music is, you only need to listen to this three-minute “orchestral” interlude from the first act. I put a parenthesis around the word “orchestral” because in fact there are no strings, no woodwinds and no brass in this excerpt, only the “kitchen,” the raucous nine instrument percussion section wailing like something out of a 50s late night jazz club, maybe Shelly Manne on steroids. You can listen to the interlude on Rhapsody. Just click #4, the first act interlude.
Shostakovich was one of the great tragic musical figures of the 20th century; his prominence seems to grow every year, even as titans such as Stravinsky have the air slowly let out of their overblown reputations. In 1975, a few months before Shostakovich’s death that August, there was a chamber theater production of The Nose conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Traditional in staging and costumes, the manic drive and absurdity of the opera still comes through. A frail Shostakovich is seen in a video poring over the score with the conductor, his weakened right arm supported by his left when he reaches out to greet a colleague.
I have not found any interview where Kentridge has talked about Shostakovich as emblematic of the troubled Gogol hero, but in several shots in the projection footage there is a younger, more robust Shostakovich at the piano—with the wandering nose superimposed over his head, all rendered in Kentridge’s signature low-tech way. And in an oblique note that is in the opera’s program Kentridge says,
The conception of the opera, its range, inventiveness, and the daring of the music, is fueled by the possibilities that seemed unleashed by the transformations in the society around the composer. The opera and, I hope, the production celebrate that moment of possibility. We know the post-history.
Yes, the “post-history” is a litany of persecution and murder that Gogol could have scarcely imagined and with which Russia is today still coming to terms.
There is no more fitting way to end this musical musing than with a clip of Shostakovich at the keyboard in the full flower of his pianistic power, playing the finale of his first piano concerto. This is music that sounds a clarion trumpet call of defiance against the venality, self-important posturing, and cruelty that was the legacy of Stalinist Russia, a legacy that surely has some small resonance in the increasing stridency and polarization that seems to be sweeping into our own beleaguered culture.