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Ida Kar died alone of thrombosis and penniless in a Bayswater bedsit in 1974, surrounded by boxes of negatives worth £50,000. Her funeral was a quiet affair, in stark contrast to the publicity attracted by an exhibition of her work fourteen years earlier.
Russian-born and of Armenian parentage, Kar arrived in Britain in 1945 with her second husband, Victor Musgrave, an art dealer. He founded Gallery One and the couple became a celebrated part of London’s post-war bohemia.
During the 1950s photographic exhibitions were uncommon and photography in Britain was at its lowest ebb and entrenched in the Victorian/Edwardian genre. In challenging British photography’s conventions - along with the notion that only sculpture and painting could be considered art - Kar drew upon the avante-garde circles she inhabited while applying the training she received in Paris.
Kar produced large scale confrontational portrait works of key modernist artists and writers of the era, using a Rolliflex purchased in 1957. Compositionally challenging and in black and white, they juxtaposed artistic portraiture and reportage subject matter in non-conventional settings. These re-examined their relationship to their environment, intensifying the relationship between photographer and subject.
Although little has been written about Kar’s work as an art form, her canon is of major interest to academics of postwar English photographic art. Ever the individualist, she photographed leading icons of the 1950s and ‘60s as well as taking to the streets to photograph shopkeepers in the Royal Arcade (London) Metropolitan Music Hall, solemn characters of the demi-mode, and capture life in the Cuban capital, Havana.
Ida Kar, the development of large format editorial magazine photography such as Picture Post and the creation of new galleries as Photographers’ Gallery served to re-examine what a ‘good’ photograph could be. They also helped to expand the boundaries of portraiture and reportage, with Kar’s work in London, Cairo and Havana widely attributed to having broken down barriers to the acceptance of photography as a fine art.
Kar's landmark exhibtion at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1960 marked a turning point in post-war photographic art as she was the first photographer to have a photographic exhibition at a London gallery. The result of a retrospective show of her work was to break the mould of photographic conventions and to spark a debate on whether photography could be considered art.
This exhibition presents nearly 100 works produced by Ida Kar. The Curator, Clare Freestone, sees particular interest in the letters from sitters. Correspondence from as Ivon Hitchens, for example, tell of a longstanding friendship – and a subject unafraid to pepper his correspondence with professional advice. Also noteworthy are may of Kar’s shoots in Petworth, some showing Ida with Mollie and Ivon eating relaxed on cushions and their son John, whom she subsequently spoke to and re-iterated the warmth and friendship of Kar towards the family.
Despite other successful photographers following the same theme as Douglas Glass for the Sunday Times, her vision was unique in the way she interacted with her sitters. Clare Freestone says, “She had a very sharp and instinctive
vision. Her connections (Victor Musgrave her husband, her early years spent in bustling Cairo and Paris of the surrealists) placed her amongst artists rather than fellow photographers.”
Material selected for the exhibition is from the NPG archive which features over 800 of Kar’s vintage prints, 10, 000 negatives, a sitters’ book and a portfolio book made in 1954 of her trip to the artists’ studios of Paris. This was purchased in 1999 in a sale through Christie’s on behalf of Monika Kinley, Victor Musgrave’s widow.
Featuring unseen archive material, the reappraisal provides a valuable record of the international art world as documented by Kar over three decades against a backdrop of wider plastic arts and literary subjects including Doris Lessing, T S Eliot, Man Ray, Jean Paul Satre, Eugene Ionesco and Colin MacInnes to name but a few.
Highlights of the exhibition of nearly 100 works include: An iconographic portrait of artist Yves Klein, shown at his first and highly controversial London exhibition in 1957 in front of one of his famous monochrome works, in the distinctive blue-colour he was to patent as his own. A portrait of the ‘art strike’ artist and political activist Gustav Metzger, taken at an exhibition entitled Festival of Misfits - another discovery in an exhibition which partly chronicles 1950s and 1960s Bohemian London society. A photograph of Royston Ellis, a poet and friend of John Lennon who inspired the song Paperback Writer and introduced Lennon to ‘Polythene Pam,’ a subject of the Beatles song. One of Kar’s earliest works, a portrait of the actress and director Sylvia Syms (1953) and a portrait of Dame Maggie Smith on the set of The Rehearsal (1961). Images of conceptualist artists such as Gustav Metzger and John Latham. Photographs of life in Cuba and Moscow. A pack of Metzger negs how from a mislabelled packet of negatives we chanced upon, showing key images of Ida Karr and the first public demonstration of auto- destructive art.
Her later work includes the leading artists of the St Ives modern art movement (Tatler, 26 July 1961), featuring Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth and Terry Frost; documentary portraits of Soho bohemia; artists associated
with her husband’s Gallery One; and Kar’s contact sheet of her portrait of Fidel Castro, taken in 1964.
A story which did not make the catalogue is that of KarSEC, the collective that Kar formed in 1968. An interview with one member Les Smithers is available in Face to Face, in which he tells of Kar’s continued desire to work professionally and to re-invent herself.
However, within a decade of her fame she was forgotten. Critics claimed that, although Ida Kar expanded photographic vocabulary, she never took photographs of the same clarity or lucidity of her 1950s heyday. She was, according to her
former assistant and PR guru, John Kasmin, a "conventional bohemian". However Kar failed to achieve the success she craved, lacking an understanding of the politics of the art world and who departed it with overwhelming debts.
Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74
The National Portrait Gallery (London)
10 March until 19 June 2011
Copyright: Pippa Jane Wielgos
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