Ida Kar has featured prominently within the cultural review pages recently owing to the in-depth exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, paying tribute to her lifetime achievements as a bohemian photographer.
Born in Russia to Armenian parents, Kar was subject to a relatively privileged childhood before leaving home for university to study medicine in Paris. Once she had discovered a sincere affection for photography however, Kar swiftly changed course and decided to pursue this newfound passion vigorously.
Post graduation, Kar spent time living in both Paris and Cairo as a young, married artist and launched a studio business with her husband. It was at this time she began crafting her eye for portraiture photography and the occasional still life. By 1944 she had divorced and remarried the highly celebrated art dealer Victor Musgrave; they subsequently moved to London where she was to reside until her death in 1974.
Despite the immense global unrest that faced society throughout the early 1940s, Kar’s work interestingly presents no evidence of any political or social commentary surrounding the period. Instead, she chose to focus her lens upon a bohemian crowd of poets, painters and writers she had encountered through their frequent visits to Musgrave’s Gallery One off the Charing Cross Road. In order to boost her income, Kar would occasionally photograph actors and actresses looking to expand their portfolios, but it was the influential and creative figureheads of the time that truly interested her.
Kar’s breakthrough event took place in 1960 at The Whitechapel Art Gallery, when a collection of her photographs were displayed and mounted in a similar way to the many fine art exhibitions that had previously been shown. This was a significant development in the augmentation of photography as a serious art form and set the precedent for future exhibitions by artists such as Cecil Beaton.
It seems incredulous that such an important photographer should remain relatively unknown for the years post the major Whitechapel exhibition. Despite several international shows and a mongraph written by Val Williams, it has mainly been thanks to the commitment of The National Portrait Gallery, who continue to raise the profile of female artists, that Ida Kar’s work has finally been brought into the spotlight.
Ida Kar (1908-74)
Front image: Bridget Louise Riley by Ida Kar, 1963 2 1/4 inch square film negative © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dame Margaret Natalie (‘Maggie’) Smith on the set of ‘The Rehearsal’ by Ida Kar, 1961 2 1/4 inch square film negative © National Portrait Gallery, London and Dame (Jean) Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar, 1957 2 1/4 inch square film negative © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dame Barbara Hepworth at work on the armature of a sculpture in the Palais de Danse by Ida Kar, 1961 vintage bromide print © National Portrait Gallery, London
IDA KAR: BOHEMIAN PHOTOGRAPHER, 1908-74 was on display at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 March to 19 June 2011.