Yousuf Karsh, Pablo Picasso and Jean Paul Riopelle
The 20th-century photographer Yousuf Karsh is best known for his portraits of famous individuals, including politicians, artists and celebrities. He was born in 1908 in Armenia and, aged 15, fled to Canada to avoid persecution under the Ottoman regime during the Armenian genocide. He initially lived and studied in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with his uncle George Nakash, under whom he began learning the art of photography. Between 1928 and 1931, Karsh interned with Boston painter and portrait photographer John H. Garo, learning the techniques of artificial lighting that would inspire his love for dramatic light in his portrait photography.
Moving to Ottawa in 1931, Karsh established his own studio with the help of his uncle. His breakthrough in photojournalism came in 1939, when he photographed U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King. These portraits established Karsh as a regular photographer for the Canadian government. Over the span of his career, Karsh’s photography could be mainly categorized in several categories: portraits of statesmen, authors, artists, scientists and physicians, musicians, actors and actresses; the subject of hands; works “on assignment” and in colour.
Arguably one of his most iconic photographs is his portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1941, during Churchill’s first visit to Washington, Prime Minister Mackenzie King invited Karsh to join him and photograph the great British statesman. Not having been informed of this portrait session, Churchill is said to have been initially visibly annoyed, but after lighting a cigar he said ‘You may take one.” In an act of artistic defiance, Karsh plucked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth and took the photo. The now famous expression of Churchill was that of anger, yet it has become synonymous with Karsh’s talent and the boldness in his craft.
During his 60-year career, Karsh photographed many artists. He favoured black-and-white photography and took advantage of studio lighting to create his dramatic portraits. Some subjects looked directly at the camera, while others were shown looking elsewhere. His portraits were designed to tell a story and capture the essence of the sitter. Many artists were shown alongside their work and materials, or posed in a way that clearly tells the viewer what they need to know about the artist’s medium of choice.
In the summer of 1954 Karsh photographed Pablo Picasso at the artist’s villa. Karsh described it as “a photographer’s nightmare, with his boisterous children bicycling through vast rooms already crowded with canvases,” and accepted the artist's alternative offer to use his ceramic studio in Vallauris. In terms of being photographed, Picasso was unpredictable, with a reputation for often not showing up at all. Yet to Karsh’s surprise, for this photo session Picasso was on time and had changed into a fresh shirt. The photograph is a black-and-white gelatin silver print. Picasso is leaning against a stone wall, framed by a dark background. I would like to believe that Karsh was composing a narrative that spoke to the burdens of genius by choosing to be in partial lighting. Picasso’s gaze is directed at the viewer, his face lit dramatically and partly in deep shadow. This pose – along with this style of lighting – is precisely what Karsh is known for. The stone wall features in the majority of Karsh’s photographs of Picasso, a total of five, with one being in colour.
Karsh also chose to photograph artist Jean Paul Riopelle in his studio, but – unlike Picasso – Riopelle is lit by natural light and facing away from the viewer. He is seen sitting in his studio with a sky-light spotlighting him, and Karsh has captured the artist mid-smoke and in deep contemplation. Riopelle was born in Montreal in 1923 and became one of Canada’s most respected abstract expressionist artists. He was known primarily for his intense and erratic painting style, using generous amounts of paint to create layers, while infusing texture and gloss onto his canvas. Despite the artist's method of working, Karsh felt Riopelle had a “gallant quality” about him and was a gentleman posing as a rough-hewn cavalier. The photograph, taken in 1952, portrays a thoughtful Riopelle surrounded by his sculptures and smaller works. The sculpture, at bottom right, catches the viewer’s attention before the figure of the artist himself. Riopelle wanted all focus to be on his work and was not keen on being the focus of attention or conversation.
Setting Karsh's photographs alongside examples of preliminary sketches by these artists can give viewers a different, broader perspective. Picasso's The Three Graces was executed in black ink and features three female nudes holding hands in a circle. The three Graces are the three daughters of Zeus, each inheriting a trait of humanity – Euphrosyne (mirth), Aglaia (elegance) and Thalia (youth and beauty). A popular subject since the Renaissance, Picasso’s rendition is a minimal line drawing, but it is effective in capturing the movement of the three figures.
Riopelle’s drawing Composition, 1947 is drawn with a combination of black and coloured ink. The abstract work is a combination of lines, geometric shapes, with black and coloured patches. Although Composition, 1947 is on wove paper rather than canvas, it appears to be a preliminary compositional sketch for Riopelle’s large painting Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane. The triptych shares the disjointed, geometric structure and colour disposition of the study.
Karsh’s photographs and the two drawings are intended to add a human element to better understanding these modern giants of abstract art and expressionism. Seeing the artists alongside their smaller works enables viewers to adjust their perspective about the process of art making and the artists who made these works.
The exhibition Riopelle: Crossroads in Time is on view at the Gallery from October 27, 2023 until April 7, 2024. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.