Photographer Ida Kar was at the heart of London’s cultural life in the 1950s, but then fell out of fashion. A new exhibition should return her to the spotlight where she belongs
Bridget Riley in 1963. All images © The National Portrait Gallery
Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74
National Portrait Gallery, 10th March-19th June, Tel: 020 7306 0055
What happens to art in times of recession? The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of postwar photographic portraits by the long-forgotten artist Ida Kar offers one answer. When the most recent downturn began, conventional wisdom was that the lack of buyers might push the art world towards self-indulgence, or a defiant testing of boundaries. Yet what has instead come to the fore since 2007, at least among curators, has been a quieter, more reflective mood; one that reconsiders artists neglected or left behind in their time.
On both sides of the Atlantic, artists once deemed dull for quietly pursuing their work, instead of following fashion, are finally getting their due. In New York, surrealist-cum-beat artist Brion Gysin got a full-floor retrospective last summer at the New Museum for Contemporary Art. London’s Whitechapel Gallery reconsidered the American Alice Neel, whose images of Andy Warhol and Frank O’Hara reinvigorated portrait painting, but who worked at a time when abstract art and white male painters predominated.
Kar deserves to be part of this reassessment. Armenian in origin, she was a member of the London cultural avant garde of the 1950s and 1960s, and chronicled the time in her own elegant style. She called herself an artist with a camera, not a photographer. But her star faded as the 1960s vogue for Blow-Up-style muscular male action photography swept all before it.
She photographed mentors, lovers, colleagues and Soho acquaintances who were not in vogue at the time but are famous today—including Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall, Dmitri Shostakovich, Iris Murdoch, Georges Braque, Maggie Smith (below) and TS Eliot. Her collection is a powerful visual history of the mid-20th century’s cultural elite. The pictures can be enjoyed simply as records of their time and place. But they also go beyond the documentary, and can be admired for the beauty of technique and tonality—form over fame. Her oeuvre incorporates a sense of diligence and restraint in a time of flamboyance.
Kar’s 1961 photograph of Maggie Smith
She was the first photographer to be treated as a fine artist, having been given a retrospective at the Whitechapel in 1960. The bold presentation of that exhibition—large-scale, high-contrast, black-and-white prints, mounted on board to resemble paintings—set a fashion for photographic shows, including a Cecil Beaton retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. “Photography,” the Telegraph wrote at the time, “is being accepted by the rarefied world of serious art.”
Yet the Whitechapel show didn’t bring recognition. Styles were changing. While Warhol was showing Campbell’s Soup Cans, Kar struggled for money and commissions. Compared with the photographers of the spontaneous 1960s—Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy, David Bailey—Kar’s posed and staged portraits, with their carefully thought-out contexts, seemed as dated as her Cleopatra eyeliner, beehive hair, and seamed stockings and heels. Age and disappointment set in. She spent time in psychiatric hospitals, while complaining of their treatment of her “as an artist.” In 1974, she died of a brain haemorrhage, broke and alone in a Notting Hill bedsit. She was 66.
Yves Klein in 1957
Gustav Metzger in 1962
Marc Chagall in 1954
During her lifetime, Kar’s portraits were collected by major galleries. But by 1982, when John Kasmin, one of her former assistants (who went on to run the Knoedler Kasmin Gallery in Cork Street) held a show of her photographs, he sold just 12 out of 60 at knockdown prices. That her work has featured at all in collections since her death is largely due to her husband Victor Musgrave, an art dealer and curator, and his subsequent partner Monika Kinley.
Musgrave ran Gallery One, an avant-garde space which maintained a precarious if brilliant existence around Soho and Mayfair for a decade, showing only art from outside the mainstream—including a first show of geometric work by the young painter Bridget Riley. It closed in 1963, and Musgrave and Kar’s open marriage collapsed in 1969. But Musgrave’s attachment to his ex-wife never faded.
“It hurts to write about Ida,” he wrote in 1982. “Omnivorous and vulnerable both, her voice and eyes, allied with the extraordinary things she said, could win people’s hearts or provoke them to fury. Few remained indifferent to her, nor would she have wished them to.” Until he died in 1984, the calm, intellectual Musgrave went on trying to save Kar from the world’s indifference. He was behind the sale of 20 of her prints to the National Portrait Gallery in 1981.
Kinley continued Musgrave’s efforts after his death, offering access to Kar’s archive to Val Williams, who wrote an 1989 monograph on Kar that was published by Virago Press. Eventually, Kinley sold the entire archive to the National Portrait Gallery in 1999. This exhibition—the first major show of Kar’s work since 1960, and the first to highlight the archive, including contact sheets of Fidel Castro and pictures from her travels in Cuba, Germany, Russia and Armenia—is the result.
Kar and her husband Victor Musgrave in the mid-1940s
However artistically interesting the photographs, the show will inevitably provoke questions about the importance of “who you know.” Kar’s pictures are known because of their subjects rather than their author, which is surprising because her big London break came when Musgrave gave her a solo exhibition at Gallery One in 1954.
Kar enjoyed proximity to her husband’s artistic circle. She was fascinated by Gustav Metzger (above), whose auto-destructive art later inspired Pete Townshend of The Who to smash guitars onstage. Her collection includes a wonderful picture of Metzger in goggles, making an acid action painting—lapping acid onto sheets of black, white and red; the acid corroded the sheets within 15 seconds of contact, so the work destroyed itself. She also photographed him creating his First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, in 1960—walking through the streets with a bag of rubbish that would be part of his installation at the Tate.
Yet Kar was always more than an exotic satellite orbiting her husband’s planet. Her view of Musgrave’s artists could be at odds with his. She documented Yves Klein at his controversial London exhibition at Gallery One, before he patented his own colour of blue—her portrait shows Klein neatly brushed, wearing a conventional tie.
Her personal style was restrained. Terry Taylor, Kar’s assistant in 1958, says she was not “a mad social animal… [she] didn’t drink a lot of alcohol or take drugs at all.”
“She was quite businesslike,” agrees Clare Freestone, who curated the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. “She would wake up in the morning and start printing. She wasn’t out drinking till all hours.”
After her brief flirtation with surrealism in the 1940s, Kar was never tempted into avant-garde experiment. “I think she was observing the scene,” Freestone adds. “I don’t know how much she actually got involved with Victor’s Gallery One artists… What made her bohemian was her exotic past and the fact that she always seemed to do her own thing, despite the trends.”
Kar’s independent spirit sprang from her international upbringing. Born in Russia, she grew up in Armenia and Egypt, studied in Paris, and hung out in Left Bank cafés with Mondrian and Tanguy. On her return to Egypt, she set up a photographic studio with the man she briefly married, before meeting Musgrave—then a poet serving with the RAF—at a surrealists’ club in Cairo. They moved to London in 1945.
Unlike Musgrave, Kar had no qualms about working with the already well-known. Some eminent acquaintances came naturally. Through a friend, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, she came to know many of his sitters, including Somerset Maugham and Gina Lollobrigida. Among the portraits she made of Epstein is a study of him sculpting a bust of Bertrand Russell.
Other big names had to be hunted harder. John Kasmin, Kar’s assistant from 1956-58, and then her manager, subscribed to a tip-off service announcing the arrival of public figures in London. He used it to get sitters for Kar, including Raymond Chandler, by telling them she was already commissioned to take their photograph, then selling the pictures to the press later.
Kar may not have known who all the subjects were, but she threw herself with gusto into the project. She did this with all her work: at the start of her career, taking theatrical pictures; in her heyday, with commissions for Tatler; and in her 1960s job, photographing animals and examining the coffee bars and street life of Soho.
But gathering artist sitters was her love. She photographed LS Lowry at his Whitechapel exhibition, and visited Paris and Russia to bag Georges Braque and Shostakovich. Teasing meaning from the clutter of their lives gave meaning to hers.
A trip to Cuba in 1964 shows her love of portraiture surfacing even in more documentary-style photos. “You could argue she was shifting a little with the times,” says Freestone. “But a lot of the pictures are still fairly composed portraits, faces juxtaposed with shot of palm-lined roads.”
A caricature of Kar by S Stepanian
An engaging British Pathé film clip from 1960 shows Kar’s working style. Sculptor Charles Wheeler, then president of the Royal Academy, is shown covering an enormous shape made of wooden planks with clay. The camera turns to slim legs in stockings and scarlet pencil skirt—Kar, neither particularly young nor beautiful, but radiating charm, with strong features heavily made-up beneath a dark pile of hair, kittenishly kicking off her high heels to climb a ladder. From the top, she leans down over Wheeler, talking and smiling encouragingly as she clicks away on her Rolleiflex.
Commenting on Kar’s working methods, critic Jasia Reichardt says: “She [shoots] a single roll of film of 12 shots only, from which the best are selected for printing. The job takes half an hour so no one has time to get bored. She relies mostly on available natural light and likes strong contrasts. The results: simple, unaffected, but often dramatic formal revelations of character.”
“She left a vacuum no one else could fill,” said her friend the realist artist Josef Herman after Kar’s death. “She was a complete original.” Hopefully, what emerges from the show will be a better appreciation of a subtle talent left too long in the shadows.
Vanora Bennett is a journalist and writer. Her novel “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” is about Hans Holbein, one of Europe’s first portraitists