wed 19/02/2020

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, National Portrait Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, National Portrait Gallery

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, National Portrait Gallery

A forgotten, but visionary, viewer

The answer, sadly, is one that all too frequently occurs: not herself an exhibitionist, her chameleon-like talent was difficult to pigeonhole, and thus she slid, gently and quietly, between the cracks as the "Swinging Sixties" made those previously admired skills – clarity, perception, composition, integrity and finish – into something boring and passé. Not for Kar the slapdash, the rushed. She respected her sitters, gave them space in which to breathe – and space to promote themselves, rather than herself. Kar is notably absent from these images, while the sitters pose and preen and prance their way across her lens.

BraqueKar is best at creating theatrical environments out of the sitters’ own working spaces: André Breton’s apartment is pure stage set, filled with things of value, or of no value, of visual interest, or merely space-filler; Georges Braque (pictured left) appears less of a showman, but no less staged. The artist Foujita Tsugouhara is photographed in front of three puppets, so tightly cropped in around his head that he appears to be the fourth; the sculptor Kenneth Armitage sits beside one of his Standing Groups, in a pose eerily, and seemingly casually, reminiscent of the work. And Terry Frost (main picture, above), in front of his wall reliefs, and the vast sweep of his Cornish studio window, sits staring into the distance, the tools of his trade neatly laid out in front of him like a dentist’s tray.

Sylvia_SymsSome of Kar’s head shots, pure portrait images though they are, share this theatricality magicked into being through lighting and composition alone: Sylvia Syms (pictured right) at 19 is lit so that she seems to glow from inside her own transcendentally fresh beauty, not from clever lighting; while a portrait of Sartre, overpowered by a towering pile of books behind, is given two little grace notes of light eccentrically highlighting his hair and chin.

Sometimes Kar appears to create the sitters' characters out of thin air. Her portrait of Jacob Epstein (among the first photographs she took of an artist, soon to be her main subject) is a marvel of sly, and shy, restraint. Epstein appears in the guise of a workman, a giant in overalls, with peaked cap and huge ham-like hands held at chest height; yet under the cap are a pair of the gentlest, most wistful, most distantly focused eyes it is possible to imagine.

Other images, however, show what a fine line Kar (and her sitters) walked. The poseurs among them betray themselves in abundance. While Hans Arp positions himself neatly between two white wings of marble, turning himself into a black-and-white angel of stone, Cecil Beaton merely pouts and preens in a greenhouse, turning himself into only a caricature of his all too easily caricatured self. Other sitters either did not set Kar alight, or perhaps just failed to reveal enough for her to capture: Dmitri Shostakovich’s portrait could be any standard publicity shot or Life magazine image; Ionesco is not much more imaginatively reproduced.

Bridget_RileyQuite what the difference is, why Bridget Riley (pictured left) becomes a black-and-white-faced marvel sandwiched between her black-and-white work, while Maggie Smith remains a handsome woman posing artificially, when both are equally artificial, remains a mystery in this show, which never seeks to engage with the artistic eye behind the lens. It may also, though, be the mystery behind Kar’s disappearance from the photography scene. The line of demarcation, between talent and artistry, between celebrity and fame, was so narrow that probably even she could not define it.


Me again Ken White. I met ida and Victor at Park Street a few times, as I was a friend of John Couzins. John has a web site set up now of his photographs. He was one of Ida's students.

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