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First Museum Exhibition in 50 Years Devoted to Ida Kar at the National Portrait Gallery
Georges Braque by Ida Kar, 1960. © National Portrait Gallery, London,

B>LONDON.- A new exhibition of portraits by the twentieth-century pioneering photographer Ida Kar opened at the National Portrait Gallery today, Thursday 10 March. Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74 highlights the crucial role played by this key woman photographer at the heart of the creative avant-garde. With striking portraits of artists such as Henry Moore, Georges Braque, Gino Severini and Bridget Riley, and writers such as Iris Murdoch and Jean-Paul Sartre, this exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the cultural life of post-war Britain and an opportunity to see iconic works, and others not previously exhibited.

On display for the first time is a 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 later to patent as his own (‘The artist who paints nothing’ was one newspaper headline at the time).

A portrait of the ‘art strike’ artist and political activist Gustav Metzger - taken at an exhibition entitled Festival of Misfits - is 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,’ the subject of the Beatles song, is also on display for the first time. As is one of Kar’s earliest works, a beautiful portrait of the actress and director Sylvia Syms from the beginning of her career in 1953.

Russian-born, of Armenian heritage, Ida Kar (1908–74) was instrumental in encouraging the acceptance of photography as a fine art when, in 1960, she became the first photographer to be honoured with a major retrospective in London, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. She later continued to document conceptualist artists such as Gustav Metzger and John Latham and life in Cuba and Moscow. Featuring unseen archive material, this reappraisal provides a valuable record of the international art world as documented by Kar over three decades while literary subjects exhibited include Doris Lessing, Colin MacInnes and T S Eliot.

Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-74 charts the photographer’s life and career from her first studio in Cairo in the late 1930s to her move to London in 1945, where she was introduced to the British art world through the family of Jacob Epstein and her husband Victor Musgrave. Her first solo exhibition in London, Forty Artists from London and Paris, at Musgrave’s Gallery One in 1954, included perceptive and sympathetic studies of the artists Stanley Spencer, Tsugouharu Foujita, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray and Le Corbusier.

Material on display from the photographer’s archive (acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, including over 800 of Kar’s vintage prints and 10, 000 negatives) includes letters, a sitters’ book and a portfolio book made in 1954 of her trip to the artists’ studios of Paris.

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, and her documentary portraits of Soho bohemia in the 1950s and early 1960s includes The Farm Coffee Shop and artists associated with her husband’s Gallery One. Kar’s portrait of Fidel Castro, included as a contact sheet, taken in Cuba of 1964, demonstrates her political interests and her engagement in promoting her work abroad.

The exhibition is curated by Clare Freestone, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Among the displays she has curated at the Gallery are Private View: British Pop and the 1960s Art Scene (2007) and Eamonn McCabe: Artists and their Studios (2008).

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘Ida Kar was a great portrait photographer and a fascinating, cosmopolitan figure who documented the post-war cultural scene. I am delighted that we can bring her work to a wider audience.’

Ida Kar was born of Armenian parentage in Tambov, near Moscow, Russia. She studied in Paris in 1928 where she was influenced by the prevailing avant-garde currents. She went on to establish her photographic practice 'Idabel' in Cairo with her first husband Edmond Belali in 1933. In 1945 she moved to London with her second husband, the artist and critic Victor Musgrave who opened Gallery One in London. This is where Kar exhibited Forty Artists from Paris and London (1954), but the height of Kar's success was her well-received Whitechapel Gallery one-person show in 1960.

In the late 1950s she contributed photo stories about life in London to the Tatler as well as photographing in Germany and Armenia and portraits of cultural celebrities. Kar travelled widely, and in 1964 was invited to Cuba to photograph celebrations for the revolution. Her environmental portraits and documents of her homeland Armenia and Castro's Cuba arrived on the British cultural scene at a time when photography was not widely seen as high art. The Whitechapel show managed to change that perception to a large degree and brought her critical if not financial success at the time. She arranged another exhibition at the House of Friendship, Moscow, in 1962. Kar continued to photograph sporadically throughout the rest of her life and just month before her death had embarked on a project of nude studies. She died in London in 1974.

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