Art Quarterly autumn 2016 out now

In the new issue of our magazine, William Kentridge talks politics, Rachel Spence calls Caravaggio's style a 'symptom of the counter-Reformation', and Gavin Turk and Joseph Kosuth ask if artists are modern-day philosophers.

This issue’s cover shows an ink sketch by William Kentridge of the femme-fatale heroine in Kentridge's production of Alban Berg's opera Lulu.

Usually associated with Richard Wagner’s ambitions for his operas, the term Gesamkunstwerk – literally a total work of art – describes a perfect synthesis of music, drama and increasingly visual art.

More than a century ago Sergei Diaghilev was wise to the synergy between the plastic and performing arts, commissioning designs for the Ballets Russes from Picasso, Matisse, Natalia Goncharova and Leon Bakst, who, as Denise Heyward points out, drew inspiration from Auguste Rodin, who himself found inspiration (and a whole new zest for life) in dance.

The Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge, an exhibition of whose work opens this autumn, prefers opera. The writer and critic Philip Hensher has called Lulu ‘an indisputable candidate for the best opera of the 20th century’. Kentridge, whom Oliver Bennett interviews in this issue of Art Quarterly, puts it in the top two. Last year he directed it for the Metropolitan in New York. It opens in the Whitechapel Gallery on 21 September.

‘For me as an artist the starting point was to think of the portrait [for which Lulu is sitting in Act I] and fragment it,’ he has said. ‘So instead of having a single oil painting of Lulu the way it’s often done, there are a number of ink sketches that come together in projections in which one sees different images of her: a different woman for different men, different possibilities. These are [not just] the décor but part of the meaning and the theme of the production. Sometimes they’re people’s thoughts; sometimes [they act as] a chorus commenting on the action.’

Kentridge’s work embraces a variety of media and forms, from drawing and installations to tapestries and public works, not least what he calls an ‘anti-monument’ Fire Walker (with Gerhard Marx) that looks like an abstract assemblage of monochrome shards from all but one aspect, from which its parts align to form the figure of a poor immigrant street vendor carrying a brazier on her head. It stands on the corner of London’s Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street as part of ‘Sculpture in the City’, an exhibition of outdoor works in the Square Mile. Nearby, in St Botolph’s-without- Bishopsgate Gardens, stands a painted bronze by Gavin Turk, Ajar, that alludes both to Marcel Duchamp’s 11 rue Larrey and René Magritte’s La Victoire. You will find Turk in conversation (about Duchamp and other things) with the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in this issue. And Magritte crops up again, where the artist Luc Tuymans argues that, contrary to received opinion, Belgian art – even Magritte’s – is rooted in realism.

The starting point for that interview is an exhibition, curated by Tuymans, of paintings by the Anglo-Belgian artist James Ensor. Ensor too worked for the stage. When, for instance, his ballet Poppenliefde was premiered at the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp in 1924, he had not only created the décor and costumes, he had conceived the work, written the story and composed the music too. A Gesamkunstwerk indeed.

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