Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Ida Met Bridget

Earlier in the week I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to check out the new exhibit, tantalisingly titled Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-1974 (actually, having the dates in the title rather spoils the effect). That's quite a promise and the exhibit, to my mind, doesn't live up to the title.

Ida Kar sounds like a fascinating character, born in Moscow, educated in Paris, an established photographer in Cairo before she moved to London in 1945 and opened a gallery with her husband. She worked in several areas of photography, including portraiture and photojournalism. In fact, in some ways, her career paralleled that of Lee Miller, who has also been "rediscovered" after a period of neglect.

But, I didn't have nearly as strong or favourable a response to Kar's work, which occupies one corner of the NPG, divided up into various alcoves, illustrating her different eras, including trips to Havana and eastern Europe.

Much of the exhibit is devoted to her portraits of actors and artists of the mid-20th century, but I found this the dullest section, firstly, because I didn't recognise many of the names (how quickly the famous are forgotten!), but secondly, because they followed a rather staid formula: serious-looking artiste stares down the camera, surrounded by the detritus of his (and they are overwhelmingly male) profession. If he's a writer, he sits at a desk surrounded by books. If he's an artist, he stands by one of his works in a studio. The pictures were perfectly competent, but the subjects seemed rather stiff and self-important. I didn't feel invited into their worlds, fascinating though they may have been.

The one exception to this was a marvellous portrait of Bridget Riley. Positioned between two planes of one of her signature Op art pieces, Riley seems to actually emerge from her own art work and stares up at the camera, looking pensive and ever so slightly vulnerable. Partly, this is owing to the high angle of the shot, which is unusual in Kar's work. But, part of it must be down to something caught between Riley and Kar which is curiously absent from the rest of the show.

By chance I had just seen Riley's exhibit over the road at the National Gallery and was struck by her working methods and her presence in her studio, surrounded by assistants, recorded for a rather stodgy TV feature in 1979. Kar's portrait, shot in 1963, shows her in an earlier phase of her career, a promise of things to come.

No comments: