Roman Heads and Polychrome Heads

William Kentridge

Roman Heads. The title comes from looking at some Roman busts, or portrait sculptures. This done with a view to finding images for the Triumphs & Laments project for the Tiber River in Rome. At the moment all that remains of them in the Triumphs & Laments project is the head of Cicero carried as a sculpture. This drawing is in the Venice show and there is a tapestry of it also.

But what struck me in looking at the classical portrait busts was the plinths – in which the shift from shoulders to head shifts from being architectural to anatomical. It’s also about the back view, in which particularly in bronze cast heads the back is often like the backstage of the theatre, an exposed shell. Then there is always the question of how little is needed for one to construct the possibility of a head from the fragments given. The one which is essentially a ball of paper on top of a cylinder to be a head and a neck. One which is a series of circumferences like the structure of a globe. One a planar surface like a cycladic head.

The 5 polychrome heads come out of the work of making masks for Lulu. In the opera production as you saw, we used a series of cardboard cylinders covered in pages of books with rudimentary eyes and mouths painted on them – they are halfway between the drawings projected and the singers on stage. Again they turn on the question of how little is needed to recognise a head, whether a cylinder, a circle, a plinth, a piece of cardboard. 

The painting and indeed the sculptures are of course indebted to Picasso’s ur-sculputre of the 20th century, the absinthe glass. In this case of course I’m playing with the idea of sculpture as a trompe l’oeil –  not the trompe l’oeil  of the object depicted, but the trompe l’oeil  of the surface – so a bronze sculpture painted carefully to look like the original wood and cardboard from which the maquette and then mould was made. One of the pleasures of the project was finding the different kinds of cardboard to be recreated in paint and the different grains of South African pine and Oregon pine. 

I worked with the painter Stella Olivier on the bronze prototypes, and she has done the painting of th edition of the bronzes.  I have worked with her before on scenic painting and some of the backgrounds for the film Refusal of Time. Her husband Louis Olivier at Workhorse Bronze Foundry in Johannesburg has cast the bronzes. It takes approximately one month to paint each set of bronzes. The bronzes are covered with an automotive primer to accept the paint, and then Stella paints them with oils.

The idea of the polychrome head refers of course to classical antiquity in which it was common to paint over the marble, bronze or wood in which a sculpture had been made. 

There were two rejected heads which had been made of bundles of cloth taped together. But try as we did we could not make the bronze look like cloth – it kept looking like ceramic.