It is not surprising that in a decade wantonly obsessed with celebrity, the portrait is once again making an impact. Artists whose archives include the famous and infamous are being rediscovered month on month.
Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Ida Kar
THE ARMENIAN PHOTOGRAPHER Ida Kar (1908-74) is being brought to the attention of the public by way of a major exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery – although Kar herself is already well known and appreciated within art trade circles. She ticks all the boxes for ‘authentic artist’ status. An exotic heritage; a student on Left Bank Paris; leaves husband for handsome RAF officer who just happens to be a poet and writer; and lives and works in bohemian Soho amidst the emerging giants of Post-War British culture. That British RAF officer was Victor Musgrave, soon to become an art dealer for whom the term ‘legendary’ is barely tribute enough.
Born 400 km outside Moscow to Armenian parents (Kar spoke Russian and Armenian fluently) Ida Karamian had a comparatively privileged upbringing. Her father taught French and Persian at university and in 1921, when she was 13, the family moved to Alexandria in Egypt where she duly attended the Lycée Francais. At the age of 20 she went on to Paris to study medicine and chemistry, subjects that aptly demonstrate the intellectual and disciplined structure of her formative years. And the restrictions imposed by a formal Armenian middle class doctrine. Kar’s behaviour amongst the Left Bank creatifs clearly indicates an independence of mind and spirit. She soon ditched medicine for violin and singing classes and experimented with photography under the influence of Heinrich Heidersberger, a surrealist painter and photographer. A return home to Alexandria in 1933 precipitated marriage to a civil servant (and keen photographer) and together they started a studio business combining their names: Idabel – Ida and Edmond Belali – specialising in portraits and exhibiting cutting edge still lifes. It was here she met Victor Musgrave, stationed at the time in Cairo, who also contributed to an avant-garde series of local exhibitions entitled Art & Freedom. By 1944 they were married and, just one year later, the Musgrave’s were living in the Regent’s Park area of London.
It is telling that in all the character profiles of Ida Kar, the ramifications of the complete dissolution of European society by that wholesale slaughter on the Western Front, or the ruthless destruction of so many ethnic cultures by the Nazi war of attrition, feature not at all. Despite living through these momentous times –Kar (born 1908) lived in Russia throughout the Revolution – she seems to have been oblivious to the chaos enveloping ordinary people. In similar vein, she seemed blind to the realities of Cold War Soviet life, visiting Russia, East Germany and her Armenian hometown of Yerevan to enjoy being treated as a celebrity by the wily Soviet apparatchiks.Victor Musgrave’s art business was based at Gallery One, off Charing Cross Road, a space he had taken over from John Christoforou in 1953 and renamed. Gallery One moved premises a number of times, each reflecting the increased prosperity and reputation of its director. At this time, Kar was focusing on documenting artists and writers with a view to a themed exhibition. To earn money she was also making portraits of actors and actresses for their publicity purposes. The epicentre of a bohemian social crowd, Gallery One explored new directions for art and language. Writer Bill Hopkins was a one-time lodger, as was Colin MacInnes; future Cork Street patriarch John Kasmin joined as fresh faced gallery assistant when Gallery One removed to 20 D’Arblay Street, Soho, in 1956. According to social commentator Stewart Home, by this time Musgrave and Ida had an ‘open marriage’ and Ida was having an affair with Terry Taylor, who also doubled as her unpaid photographic assistant.
Taking photographic portraits of artists and writers as a fine art activity was nothing new. From the 1930s Brassaï consistently documented the artists in his milieu; Robert Doisneau, Arnold Newman and Hans Namuth from the 1940’s onwards; Jorge Lewinski in the 1960’s. In can be fairly stated then that Ida Kar’s work in the 1950’s continued a fine tradition and her camera work easily holds its own against any of her peers. Ida Kar’s exhibition Forty Artists from London and Paris ran at Gallery One from 12 to 31 October 1954. Subsequently she photographed the artists exhibiting at Musgrave’s gallery.
Victor Musgrave was an exceptionally gifted art dealer. The D'Arblay Street gallery gave Yves Klein his first London solo exhibition; showed work by Fluxus artists; Gillian Ayres; Gustav Metzger; and gave several shows of Francis Newton Souza. In 1962 Musgrave rescued a pretty young girl sheltering from the rain in his gallery doorway (by then in North Audley Street) and the chance meeting resulted in Bridget Riley’s first London exhibition. He went on to develop a professional interest in Outsider Art (or Art Brut) and with Monika Kinley (whom he married after divorce from Ida) developed a prestigious collection of seminal works by its leading exponents.
The pinnacle of Ida Kar’s career was undoubtedly her major solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960. Informed by her experience of the hugely successful Family of Man at the Royal Festival Hall in 1956, she consciously imitated its dynamic style of presentation. Curated by Edward Steichen, the Family of Man had first been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York a year earlier. The 503 photos by 273 photographers in 68 countries were selected from almost 2 million pictures submitted by famous and unknown photographers, offering a snapshot of life that encompassed birth and joy through to illness and death. The touring show visited 38 countries and over 9 million people reputedly viewed the exhibitions. Ida Kar: An Exhibition of Artists and Writers in Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union opened at the Whitechapel, 22 March to 1 May 1960; much of the cost being underwritten by Kar herself. At this time Ida Kar was at the top of her game and a fashionable name. There is a telling snapshot of her personality in a Pathé newsreel of June that same year. Here Kar is deputed to record the then President of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Wheeler, as he creates a sculpture. Dressed in seamed stockings and heels, with a trendy beehive style hair-do and her trademark Rolleiflex, she is a dominating presence. The voice over, comic by today’s standards, is full of praise for the famous photographer. Coincidentally, a snap of Wheeler sliding down a banister rail was later sold to the Daily Express for £50 by Kasmin, the most he ever got for a Kar image at the time.
Ida Kar had always been erratic, domineering, and charismatic –what would be called ‘over the top’ today. As the ‘60s moved on, and despite more and more opportunities brought about by increasing exposure in magazines like Tatler and Vogue, and the ripple effect of the Whitechapel show, Kar became mentally unstable. This might have been exacerbated when she and Musgrave regularly lived apart, but by the later 1960’s she was having residential psychiatric treatment. Living alone in a bedsit she carried on taking photographs and became obsessive about her Armenian heritage, regularly attending the St. Sarkis Orthodox Church in Kensington. She died alone of a cerebral haemorrhage on Christmas Eve, 1974, a cause that may well explain her extreme psychological disorders of those later years.
In 1999 the National Portrait Gallery in London acquired her remaining archive, a substantial holding of some 800 prints and over 10,000 negatives, 400 vintage contact sheets, and related ephemera. The NPG is in the process of making these images available on line.