Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery is currently showing a selection of Ida Kar’s photographic portraits of post-war artists and writers under the title Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer. The description could equally well suit her or her subjects. The 40 or so pictures are drawn from the major retrospective held at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011, which did much to bring her back to public attention after her star had waned in the wake of the sixties. They add up to a fascinating composite portrait of the times.
Kar’s full name was Ida Karamanian, the surname indicative of her Armenian heritage. She trimmed the tail off at some point, donning her bohemian artistic persona by creating a monicker of intriguing ambiguity and impactful brevity. It looks like it should be an anagram (Arkadia, perhaps). Her formative years found her exposed to a cosmopolitan variety of cultures and climates. She was born in Russian in 1908, where she spent her childhood, before moving to Egypt and the ancient city of Alexandria. Her first taste of the bohemia to which she would surrender herself came through her studies in Paris, where she enjoyed the left bank life from 1928-9. At this point, she wanted to be a singer, perhaps influenced by the chansonniers of the day like Damia and Fréhel. In the 30s, having moved back to Egypt, married and set up home in Cairo, she became increasingly interested in photography, however. She had briefly worked as an assistant to a photographer in 1935 and learned the techniques and processes involved, and established her own studio in Cairo. Interestingly, the photographer Lee Miller was also living in Cairo at this time, having also married an Egyptian man. Perhaps they met. It was in the 1940s that she met Victor Musgrave, who had been posted to Egypt during the war. He was a poet and painter with a surrealist bent, and also an editor, art critic and, later on, a gallery owner and curator. They fell in love and lived in the Old Town, the bohemian quarter of Cairo, before getting married in 1944 after Ida’ divorce had come through.
They moved to London in 1945, initially living in a Close off Regents Park before moving to an old Victorian terraced house at 1 Litchfield Street, a small conduit linking Charing Cross Road with St Martin’s Lane. The ground floor was taken up be a gallery owned by the painter John Christoforou, which Musgrave helped to run. Ida set up a photographic studio on the top floor. Their new home was a short hop from Soho, and they were soon immersed in the bohemian life, artistic and otherwise, of its narrow streets, clubs and watering holes. Ida was sociable, outgoing and loquacious, and very generous with her time. She surrounded herself with friends and acquaintances, some of whom came to stay in Litchfield Street, which was effectively an open house, the gallery a meeting space and the flat a lodging room for itinerant artists. Some of these also became her lovers, since neither she nor Musgrave saw their marriage in terms of monogamous sexual fidelity. Whilst her strident character and uncensored opinions meant that she was not always an easygoing or relaxing companion, she showed a genuine interest and dedication to her expansive circle of friends. She was quite the opposite of her contemporary John Deakin, another photographic chronicler of Soho life and sometime contributor of celebrity shots for Vogue. He, by all accounts (and you can read about both him and Kar in Barry Miles’ history of the capital’s post-war counterculture London Calling) was a duplicitous parasite and poisonous stirrer. Kar took no active part in the artistic life of the capital and was ignorant of contemporary currents, seemingly uninterested in what was going on in the worlds of art, theatre or literature. This curious disconnection may actually have worked to her advantage, since she approached her subjects as individuals and working people, irrespective of their achievements (or lack of them). She took photographs of people who were part of her life, who happened to be artists, writers and musicians, and through them gained introductions to others who agreed to have their portraits taken. Jacob Epstein, one of the elders of British art, who lived in the area, was particularly helpful in this regard. She took a number of pictures of him in his studio whilst he was working on a sculpture of the actress Elizabeth Keen in 1951, one of which is included here.
The exhibition in Plymouth is divided into three geographical groupings. The largest naturally comprises the London pictures, which range from the 1951 Epstein portrait to a striking photograph of Bridget Riley taken in 1963, in which she is enfolded between the op-art striations of her own paintings. Riley had met Musgrave by chance in 1961 whilst she was passing the gallery which he now owned. This was Gallery One, which had taken its name from the number of the house in Litchfield Street where it first opened in 1953, after Christofours had departed for other shores. By the time of this fortuitous encounter, however, it had moved to smarter premises in Mayfair. Riley happened to be carrying a portfolio of her work, Musgrave took a look, liked it and gave her the first major exhibition of her career. Kar captures her at this early point, before her eye-dazzling graphic style was adopted as one of the defining looks of the decade. Other artists tend to be photographed in their studios, thus granting us a fascinating glimpse into the working spaces (and works in progress) of the likes of sculptors Henry Moore, Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler, and painters Ivon Hitchens, Sandra Blow, Keith Vaughan and John Piper. An exception here is a portrait of Graham Sutherland with his wife Katherine relaxing in their Kent home in front of a whitewashed fireplace, a couple of his paintings casually propped on the mantelpiece above. Yves Klein is posed with one of his sponges hovering above his head like a thought bubble or a tethered brain balloon, its intense blue transformed into inky photographic monochrome. Stanley Spencer sits beneath a black umbrella even though he’s indoors. Its canopy echoes the moppish bowl of his hair, and it lends him an air of added eccentricity as he looks out from its protective shadow with a mildly inquisitive regard. His suit is shabby and flecked with chalk or paint, a pencil sticking out of its breast pocket, and an old jumper covers a frayed shirt with tie loosely knotted beneath a collar unbuttoned and askew. He is a picture of distracted unworldliness, the archetypal artist immersed in their work to the point of self-neglect. John Piper, on the other hand, stares into the camera eye with an intense, transfixing and rather dolorous stare, tie firmly knotted and top button done up. He is the artist as serious labourer as opposed to Spencer’s dishevelled daydreamer. Behind him we can see a model for a ballet set he was working on, which may be the one which now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s theatre and performance galleries.
There’s a selection of photographs from two trips to France. The first was made in 1954, with some of the resultant portraits included in her 40 Artists from London and Paris exhibition at Gallery One. Man Ray looks a little irritable posing in front of his 1952 painting Mademoiselle H. Arch-modernist architect Le Corbusier shows his artistic side, leaning on a desk full of sketches, with paintings stacked up behind him, looking out at us through the thick black circles of his spectacles with a crow-like regard. Marc Chagall, who you'd expect from his paintings to be open and full of joy, appears nervous and defensive, looking to one side rather than meeting the eye of the lens. His hands seem gnarled and painful. Albert Giacometti, who you'd think from his sculptures would be full of nervous angst, cheerfully perches on wooden steps outside his studio. Fernand Leger, on the other hand, looks glum and downcast in a cap. The the old Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini strikes a distinctly deadpan pose and looks postively Ivor Cutlerish way in a newspaper hat, fruit and croissants temptingly set out behind him.
Kar went back to France in 1960 in order to take some more photos for the exhibition of her work being prepared for the Whitechapel Gallery. This would be one of the first major photographic exhibitions to be presented in an art gallery in Britain, and was a significant recognition of her achievements. She had been greatly assisted in setting up the show by John Kasmin, whom she and Musgrave had met in 1956, and who became their lodger, gallery assistant and later Ida’s business manager. He would go on to open his own art gallery in Bond Street in 1963, which became one of the most important of the 60s, exhibiting paintings by the likes of David Hockney, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Robin Denny, Howard Hodgkin. During her 1960 French trip, Kar shot Andre Breton, one of the founding fathers of surrealism, behind his desk, which is engulfed in letters and papers. There are paintings by Picasso and de Chirico on the wall, and African or Oceanian masks and carvings on every available surface. Georges Braque leans on a chair amongst his paintings, an amused look in his eye, whilst Jean Arp stands at his sculptor’s table, chisel in white-gloved hand.
Following the success of her Whitechapel show, Kar travelled down to St Ives to capture some of the artists at work in the far corner of the South West. Subjects included here are Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon (a charmingly informal shot with his daughter on his shoulder), Bryan Wynter with his wife Monica and son, Patrick Heron, potter Bernard Leach, sculptor Denis Mitchell and Barbara Hepworth, who warrants two pictures. In one, Barbara Hepworth at Work on the Armature of a Sculpture, she is neatly framed by the curling wire and mesh frame of her own work. The St Ives artists’ portraits are accompanied by an example of their work from the Plymouth museum collection, as are some of the London artists. Hepworth’s Constellation from 1973 is one of her white, smoothly rounded marble forms with a hole through its centre, which invites a caressing touch but is unfortunately encased in glass. Bryan Wynter’s Oceanic II from 1963 evokes the Cornish sea with a series of blue brushstroke currents and swells. Patrick Heron’s Six in Light Orange with Red in Yellow silhouttes cut out red shapes against yellow backrounds to dazzling effect. Stanley Spencer’s portrait gives the museum the excuse to get out the painting he made of allotment gardens on the Plymouth Hoe in 1955 (Hoe Garden Nursery). John Piper’s connection with the city is made through a sketch for one of the stained glass windows he designed for the post-war restoration of St Andrews Church. This was for the East window in the Lady Chapel, and incorporated various symbols such as the Marian rose (the rose without thorns, an ivory tower, a grail, lilies, a serpent, a golden gate and, at the apex, a shining star, all set against a deep blue background. I got to have a look at Piper’s beautiful windows later, thanks to the kind auspices of a warden who let me nose about even though the church was technically open only for the choir practice which was going on. Thankfully, the sun was out, so I was able to witness them in their full radiant glory.
Kar continued to work throughout the 60s, but sadly, her mental state grew hazy as the decade drew to a close. Her relationship with Musgrave ran its course and the marriage ended. As loosely defined and noncommittal as it may have appeared, her connection with her husband was an important one for her, and when it was severed, she drifted. Her bohemian friends largely abandoned her, converging on the latest bright figure or new scene, revealing the less appealing side of the counterculture, its fickleness and sometimes ruthless self-regard. She died in the bedsit to which she had been reduced in 1974. Musgrave went on to become a collector of outsider art produced by the mentally ill or those whose existed on the fringes of society, an interest perhaps partly influenced by his former wife’s decline. Kar’s reputation has experienced a revival in recent years, however, and the National Portrait Gallery now holds a significant collection of her work, from which this exhibition is drawn. It continues until 13th April.
A Hamadryad - John William WaterhouseThe museum also currently has an exhibition focussing on women both as artists and as artistic subjects. This has some interesting paintings and objects, including a sketch for Millais’ Ophelia, with poor Lizzie Siddal as its sodden subject, lying for hours in tepid bathwater. It’s the archetypal Victorian image of passive suffering and self-sacrificing womanhood. For the concomitant image of woman as mysterious temptress and aloof mythological embodiment of otherness we can turn to the adjacent painting A Hamadryad by John William Waterhouse, he of Lady of Shallott fame. This has the nude wood nymph entwined in the roots, vines and ivy of her tree, her upward tending shock of hair continuous with the dark foliage. She looks down at the wee faun playing his panpipes all unawares. The red umbrella of a toadstool stands out amongst the woody browns and greens, and presumably symbolises some poisonous temptation which we are to associate with her, rendering her sinister and dangerous. A portrait of Mrs Mortimer Collier and Family painted by John Collier in 1879 presents his wife in a dark Victorian domestic interior, dressed in sombre black velvet and almost literally an object for the children to play with. She sprawls on the couch whilst they tease out her absurdly long hair, which seems to reach down to her feet. A later portrait by Collier from the 20s, this time of a Mrs Osborne, presents a striking contrast. She is dressed in the practical fashions of the age, has short wavy hair wrapped in a headscarf and is clearly about to go out.
An Aerial View of Plymouth and Environs - Dorothy WardOf the women artists on display, Dorothy Ward’s large canvas An Aerial View of Plymouth and Environs really stands out, not least because of its monumental scale. It presents a fascinating glimpse of the pre-war city, and set it within a wider landscape, leading back to rolling hills and moorland peaks, with a church perched on top of one such at the back, like an object of pilgimage. The winding roads and rivers invite imaginative exploration of city and country, much as the maps in the flyleaves of a Tolkeinesque fantasy trilogy. It reminds me of the similarly expansive (if somewhat smaller) illustrations of the Scottish city of Unthank (an imaginary version of Glasgow) in Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. You can read a bit more about Ward here. Also here are Therese Lessore’s naturalistic, informal 1921 painting Cook, a portrait of a woman at work. Lessore’s painting particularly impressed Walter Sickert. As Matthew Sturgis writes in his biography of the artist, Sickert observed that ‘by “some strange alchemy of genius”, the essential being and movement of her subjects – not models, but real people doing real things – were “torn from them and presented in ordered and rhythmical arrangements of the highest technical brevity and beauty”, fixed by the “cold and not unkindly malice of her vision”’. His enthusiastic promotion later helped her sell her first painting, and he was evidently impressed with her on a personal level too, since he married her in 1926. Unfortunately, his reputation and increasing dependence on her (she was 25 years his junior) led to the eclipse of her own artistic development. It was only in the few years left to her after his death in 1942 (she died in 1945) that she was able once more to explore her own creative avenues.
Pastel Autumn Balloon Trees - Clarice CliffOne of Clarice Cliff’s pieces of porcelain tableware is on display, a sugar sifter (whatever that might be) produced in 1930 with a typically colourful design, the title perhaps appropriately sounding like one of Donovan’s sunny psychedelic songs – Pastel Autumn Balloon Trees. Margaret Lovell’s 1970 sculpture Jib solidifies the wind formed curve of a sail, its surfaces rough and blackened, leaving the polished bronze to gleam along the edges, outlining it in light. June Miles’ 1966 painting Clifton Park takes the colours and fascination with neglected urban corners of the Camden Town group and transfers them to Bristol. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Card Table, from 1967-9, uses its subject matter as an excuse for an essentially abstract scattering of square forms, with varying shades of red, grey or green, against larger rectangular divisions. It’s a small scale and interior kind of abstraction, very different from the sort of thing she’d been doing in St Ives, inspired by the sea and the Cornish landscape, or the grand series of paintings she produced in the early 50s, complex interpenetrating concatenations of icy blue planes which drew on her observations of glaciers in the Swiss Alps. She continued to paint into old age, producing abstract works, often on paper, up until her death in 2004.
Waiting by Prunella CloughWaiting by Prunella Clough is a late picture from 1991, by which time she had long turned her back on the industrial, dockside and urban landscapes with which she had made her name in the post-war period. This large semi abstract work retains a certain air of concrete surrounds with the abraded greys of its surfaces, however. The figure on the left is half way between human and plant form, something which has become a part of its environment (and whose slightly slumped, immobile posture presumably gives rise to the title). The bell-like head could be a rain hat or the cap of a toadstool, the spindly legs the spreading shoots of tubers. The central vertical eye of the body (a shape suggestive of the feminine) has the spectral sheen of an abalone shell, a pulsating heart of chromatic life within the pervasive grey. Other organic forms and patterns are foggily suggested behind this figure, and you can almost make out the lines of an elderly face beneath the dark, shapeless mass heavily pendant from the top of the frame. Or perhaps this is just pattern recognition derived from the weathered cracks and ridges of granite or concrete, indicative of the desire to find familiar form in the abstract. The exhibition continues until November.