28 APRIL 1961, Page 11

Karsh of Ottawa

From MORDECAI RICHLER TORONTO THE Toronto Globe & Mail recently published a five-part attack on non-figurative art, and the Canada Council, called 'Cult or Culture?' The main point of the articles was that the tax- payer's money was being irresponsibly spent by the Council to subsidise worthless pictures. In Passing, we were informed that one of the arbiters of new art cult, 'Polly' Guggenheim, was a degenerate (readers were gravely told that the author of the articles, Harold Greer, spent a year entirely devoted to research), and that Jean-Paul Riopelle, our Riopelle, was living in Paris, and was ashamed to be a Canadian. A spirited corre- spondence is still going on. Since the initial articles appeared, however, the Globe has given us an idea of the sort of artist they do respect. In their regular series 'Gallery of Canadians,' a pro- file of Yousuf Karsh begins : 'Yousuf Karsh, master photographer, is credited with raising his art to a level never before thought possible for this medium.'

Last September, the National Gallery, Ottawa, Invited Karsh to give a one-man show. In the -eightY-Year history of the Gallery he is the first Canadian photographer to have been so honoured.

I met Karsh, some time ago, at his home, a SPlendid country place on the Rideau River about fifteen minutes outside of Ottawa.

'This country has been kind to me from the Yell' beginning,' he told me. 'I would never leave With us in the garden were Madame Karsh, who died recently after a long illness, and Marsh Jeanneret, Director of the University of Toronto Press. A tape-recorder stood on the table. Immed- iately, I asked Karsh about the little statue of St. Francis standing on a mound under a tree. But this is a bird sanctuary,' Karsh said, 'and St. Francis, of course, is the patron saint of the little creatures.'

'We call our house "Little Wings,"' Madame Karsh said.

'Oh,' Karsh said, snapping his fingers, 'I just had a thought.'

Jeanneret sprung quickly to his feet and turned on the tape-recorder. `Karsh has just had a further thought,' he said into the microphone before handing it to Karsh.

'Excuse me,' Karsh said.


Karsh cleared his throat. 'This is Karsh with a postscript,' he said. 'When we first came out to this lovely place we saw a bluebird light on the ground—' `Not a blue bird,' Madame Karsh said emphatically, 'but a blue bird. The bluebird of happiness.'

'—and we thought,' Karsh said, 'this was a very good omen. If this site was good enough for the bird it would certainly do for us.'

Jeanneret turned off the tape-recorder and explained that he had been staying with the Karshes for two days, recording anecdotes for an eventual biography.

'Yousuf Karsh,' Madame Karsh said, 'has taken so many great portraits of so many great men `He doesn't just take pictures,' Jeanneret said, 'but captures the quintessence of a man.'

`—that eventually the world will want to know who he was and what he was like.' • Many of Karsh's portraits of the great have appeared on the cover of Wisdom. This exclusive magazine, published by the Wisdom Society in Beverly Hills, California, makes an annual Wis- dom Award—a twelve-inch-high replica of Rodin's The Thinker. If, however, you take out a lifetime subscription to Wisdom, you too can have the Rodin statue, with your name engraved on the pedestal. Wisdom recently devoted almost an entire issue to Karsh's work. 'Of all con- temporary artists,' the editor wrote, `Karsh is the most likely candidate for immortality.'

Karsh offered me another drink. 'This is the only home outside the United States,' he told me, 'that Ed Murrow has ever visited on Person to Person.'

We stepped inside to eat. Over the dining- room table there was a portrait of Karsh in a prayerful pose. He wore a monk's habit. A blue- bird flew overhead. 'It's very artistic,"Jeanneret said, 'isn't it?'

`When I first met Yousuf Karsh,' Madame Karsh said, 'I asked him what it was he wanted, fame or fortune, because you cannot have both. Karsh told me without hesitation he wanted fame. I was the first one to realise,' she said, `that he had genius.'

Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia, in 1908, and was brought to Canada by his uncle in 1924.

Marsh Jeanneret, Karsh's publisher, turned the conversation round to the photographer's most recent book, Portraits of Greatness.

`This book is my life's work,' Karsh said. 'It represents a dream come true.'

Jeanneret told me the first printing of the book was sold out on publication day, and that since then it has gone into a third printing. More than 40,000 copies have been sold round the world; 7,000 of these in Canada. 'At first,' Jeanneret said, 'we thought we'd have to subsidise pub- lication of the book.' He explained that the University of Toronto Press was a non-profit, strictly cultural organisation. 'We don't publish novels, for instance.'

'I see.'

'Have you seen Karsh's magnificent portrait of Churchill?' he asked.

It has been published three times by Life. Twice on the cover, once inside. Prior to taking Churchill's portrait in 1941 Karsh was the most sought-after society photographer in Ottawa, but still had no international reputation. 'At the time,' he said, `no presentation at court was complete without a Karsh portrait.' Today, however, he has little time for personal commissions. 'The Churchill portrait,' he said, 'was the turning-point in my career.' He was only able to get the famous photograph with the help of Mackenzie King, after Churchill had addressed a joint session of the Canadian Parliament on December 30, 1941. 'That portrait came to symbolise Britain's determination to fight,' Jeanneret said. 'It helped win the war. It was a great influence on morale.'

Another Karsh portrait, this one of the Dutch Royal Family in exile in Ottawa, was parachuted by the thousand to resistance fighters in Holland during the war. Karsh made no charge for this. He also waived all royalties on his portrait of Pope Pius that has been reproduced in an edition of six million copies.

I asked Karsh if he contemplated a sequel to his Portraits of Greatness.

'Find me ninety-six more great people.' he said, 'and I would gladly do it.'

Karsh said that it had been no easy chore for him to narrow himself down, from the many studies accumulated over a ten-year span, to ninety-six portraits of the truly great. Some, he insinuated, had been displeased to be left out of the book. Those included, however, suggest no intellectually confined interpretation of great- ness. Among the writers are Pearl S. Buck as well as Hemingway. Norman Rockwell is one of the few painters in the book. The cinema is repre- sented by Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney as well as Rend Clair. Alongside Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Igor Stravinsky we have portraits of greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Their Serene Highnesses Prince Rainier ill and Princess Grace of Monaco, and Audrey Hepburn.

'I've never read any reviews of the book,• Karsh said. 'It would mean taking the bitter with the sweet and ...'

'It's mostly sweet,' Jeanneret said quickly.