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 belongsby Vanora Bennett / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
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,…