Review of 'Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists' at Canadian Embassy

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pick your dreary image: It's a holding cell, a decompression chamber, a place so formidably austere you'd think no fantasies could ever form there. But however grim the small, darkened gallery at the Canadian Embassy appears, walk around the 28 photographs by Yousuf Karsh on display in "Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists," and you'll find that the space feels more like a sculpture garden.

It's a garden of heroes. Sculpted from shadows and reverence and, when needed, just the right prop -- a half-smoked cigarette or, in the case of Andy Warhol, a house-painting brush with bristles as glossy as his own pale comb-over. Light is their enemy, so the room is dimmer even than its battleship-gray walls. But time has been kind to these faces. Karsh, who died in 2002 at 93, photographed them up to 60 years ago, when folks believed in heroes. There is no irony here. Instead, there is lyrical idealization. These photos memorialize our mid-century faith in the nobility of art, and in the goodness of greatness.

Karsh, an Armenian emigre who lived most of his life in Ottawa, made pictures the way the old sportswriters used to ply their trade, mythologizing and storytelling Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio right up onto their pedestals. Don't God up the ballplayers! legendary sports editor Stanley Woodward used to say, pressing for a more nuanced and honest approach. But what does a little well-placed puffery hurt? From Winston Churchill (his first great portrait) to Bill Clinton, Karsh Godded up his subjects, none more so than the artists in this show.

Take Joan Crawford. Cigarette dangling from one hand? Check. Padded shoulders? Check. And the dark lipstick, the glamorous wrap, every fingernail filed to a point and as polished as a Pontiac. With that waxy full mouth and agate-hard eyes, her face an unlined mask -- no smoker's creases, no smile lines -- she looks just as untouchable and unblemished as her public wished her to be. In 1948, nobody wanted to know Mommie Dearest's secrets. Here, she is more than a movie star -- she is the entirety of what the fan magazines were selling back then, the Hollywood dream with a bungalow on the lot and Frank Sinatra on the dial and nervous assistants bringing coffee. Karsh packaged Crawford as a lifestyle.

Karsh's portraits seem so much like sculpture not only because of their mythic contexts but also because of their textures, the contours and solidity of illuminated bone structure. He brings out the weightedness of these faces, and turns it into moral weight. Marian Anderson gazes just over our shoulder. It's 1945, and she's the black Madonna, patience and trials writ in her eyes, looking beyond our sins. That velvet skin whose color figured in a national uproar is the story here, lighted by Karsh to glow as if from within -- but not to glisten. She's cool, flawlessly matte, neither wary nor judgmental. The slopes and planes of her face -- the biggest close-up in the room -- have a solemn majesty that echoes the grandeur of that voice.

Some of the portraits are less face, more drama. François Mauriac is captured in profile, but the French novelist's features are dark, limned in a thin glow as if he were in partial solar eclipse. The back story is that Paris was experiencing a power outage on this day in 1949; the fading afternoon sun was all Karsh had to work with. The light traces Mauriac's silhouette as if it were a curl of smoke from a Gauloise, drifting around his high intellectual forehead and double-humped nose, his little brushy mustache and those drawn-in lips, made tight, one supposes, from all those frontal Gallic vowels in overuse.

Martha Graham is one of the few full-torso photographs, though she, too, is mostly in profile. Like Crawford's, her broad-planed face resembles an impenetrable mask, but it's not a pose; it's held in listening, inner-directed stillness. All the tension is in her muscular fingertips. (An interesting detail to capture, from a dancer -- one that a lesser photographer might overlook. But Karsh was famous for the attention he paid to hands.) She's sacred above, profane below, as the serpentine arrangement of her body hints, the way her hip slides away from her spine, the pronounced curve of her breast. A difficult, tempestuous drinker? Not this Martha. This is the discipline-hard goddess.

She and Georgia O'Keeffe are soul mates, at least to Karsh. O'Keeffe in her desert studio is staged like a cutout in one of Joseph Cornell's boxes, like a little work of theater: She's in her spinster's black dress, her fingers curved just so, like the wind-twisted hunk of tree at her side. There's a steer skull hanging overhead; the New Mexican strata can be spied through the rough-hewn doorway. The composition is an assemblage of all the familiar O'Keeffe totems. Everything looks so dry, you can almost feel the dust in your mouth. Of course, O'Keeffe's paintings gorged on life -- those fat flowers, the rich, joyous colors. Sensuality written all over them. But Karsh frames the artist as an ascetic, exactly as we'd imagine her to be, serving her muse in that hard-baked landscape.

That's the reality of Karsh's work. If you're looking for penetrating insights, you won't find them here. He states the obvious. He does it beautifully. He states the obvious better than anybody else working with big names in luxuriantly silver-rich paper. (Even if Mies van der Rohe contemplating triangles seems much too obvious.) There's Hemingway in Havana, turtlenecked (in the tropics? But it's a dandy sweater, gorgeous suede front), weathered and a bit tortured around those dark eyes. There's Henry Moore, shoulder to shoulder with one of his marble sculptures, which itself looks a little like a self-portrait, its bulges echoing his strong nose and cheekbones. A grandfatherly Picasso still looks boyish and playful, as if he's got something up the crisp, creased sleeve of his new shirt.

Christian Dior, half-hidden in shadow, looks past us in silent judgment, finger to his lips, one brow cocked above an appraising eye. He's just this side of stern; he looks like he might just approve -- and secretly, of course, we imagine he would approve if that eye flicked in our direction. Karsh knows we'd like to think this, and he gives us the Dior of our dreams.

Karsh dealt in dreams. It seems like an old-fashioned attribute, now. We don't see the famous this way anymore -- serene, knowing and pearlescent -- and what celebrity today could pose so unself-consciously heroically as Anderson, or Crawford? But so it was once upon a time, when we put our hearts in DiMaggio's hands and he lifted a nation with his hitting streak; when we put our faith in Walter Cronkite (whom Karsh also photographed, though that portrait is not in this show), and he told us the way it was; and we put our heroes under Karsh's lights and he gave them back to us, strong, perfect and immortal. That was the way we needed it to be, in our imagination as well as his.

Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists, closes Dec. 18. At the Embassy of Canada, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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