From English restraint to Bohemian freedom

Two of the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibitions reveal changing attitudes to the artist i

As you walk around the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition of the works of E O Hoppé it is with the knowledge that the man, renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his portrait photographs of the rich and powerful, has been forgotten. I spent the majority of my visit to the exhibition trying to work out why.

The answer is to be found in another exhibition at the same venue. Like Hoppé, Ida Kar was also a photographer who, despite not being a native Londoner, gained her reputation in England's capital city. The effect of going to Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer after walking among the Hoppé exhibition is revelatory. The gap between each photographer's most productive period is about 20 years -- Hoppé in the 1920s and 1930s and Kar in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet when you look at the work of the latter it feels like an age has passed between these artists. I was aware as I looked at the work on display in the two exhibitions that I was looking at two vastly different worlds.

Indeed, the social conventions and almost restrained individuality one feels is present even in Hoppé's most daring portraits is completely absent from Kar's work.

Hoppé comes closest to losing the social conventions of his time in his photojournalism. Mainly known for his portraits, if you look to the right side of the gallery a wholly different range of photographs in this form are on show. They form the Street aspect of the exhibition and, as accomplished as some of the portraits are, it is these and their capturing of a London and its people in between the two world wars that grabs your attention.

Hoppé had an eye for what you might call the mundane eccentric. Or at least what looks eccentric now. In the Street collection he records with skill the British going about their hobbies and odd jobs. Just some of those captured here include swimming, piano-playing, bell-ringing, felling trees, ironing and flag making, and all performed with a jingoistic gusto. The photographs would provide the perfect visual companion to George Orwell's essay "England Your England", in which he described the nation's "addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations". Even though I wished there had been more of this work on display, the feeling is that you are viewing a relic -- an England long gone. A piece of history for which, despite finding it fascinating, I was unable to garner a personal and emotional engagement.

Viewing Kar's work straight after magnified the feeling. For all the eccentricity recorded in Hoppé's Street pictures, by the time of Kar's work it is clear the definition of eccentric has altered. That change has all to do with the growth of the artist as the expression of individualism - a movement that would become all encompassing in artistic circles by the 1960s.

Her work heralds a point in which the celebration of not just the artist but the art itself becomes the focus. This revolution is discernible in the two exhibitions. As Kar captures images of artists in their natural habitats she not only creates the myth of the artist but also obliterates the once held distinction between the artist and their art. In Hoppe's portraits it is the artist who is the subject, in Kar's the artist cannot be separated from their art.

Illustrative of this is a picture Kar took of Russian composer Shostakovich. Sitting on a piano stool turned away from his chosen instrument and looking straight into the camera, he looks incredibly stiff. The burden of balancing the demands of his creative desires and the political state is etched not just on his face but body too and brought out fully in the photograph. It is this sort of autobiographical moment of truth that is something not only absent from Hoppé's pictures, but is now the de rigueur demand we make of our photographers.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street and Ida Kar: Bohemian Photogrpaher run at the National Portrait Gallery uintil May 30 and June 19.

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Intelligent life on earth: why we need Radio 4's Book of the Week

When a book on quantum gravity came on air, it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It sounded like the densest of abridgements: five days of excerpts from Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (week beginning 28 November, 9.45am). Swarms of quantum events where time does not exist. Cosmology, meteorology and cathedrals of atomism. Leucippus of Miletus and lines of force filling space. Very few of us listening could have understood what was being said. Instead, we just allowed it to wash over, reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

Perhaps once or twice, as the week progressed, token attempts were made to check that everybody was keeping up (“So, the number of nanoseconds in a second is the same as the number of seconds in 30 years”) – or to encourage listeners to picture themselves as part of an experiment (“Imagine I’m on Mars, and you were here . . .”). But generally it was utterly airtight, the reader, Mark Meadows, doing a good job of keeping his voice at a pace and tone uncondescendingly brisk, flattering us that nobody was scratching their head (“The speed of light determined by Maxwell’s equations is velocity with respect to what?”).

It was my favourite radio book reading of 2016. Not because I learned a single thing I could repeat, or might realistically mull over, but because it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It’s that old idea that something might be there for your betterment. When we were exposed to just four channels on television especially, and forced to stay on them, we got into astronomy and opera and all sorts of stuff, almost against our will. (Rigoletto? Jesus. Well, there’s nothing else on . . .) The programme was marvellously and unapologetically impenetrable, as the days and chapters piled up relentlessly (“We are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail shell”). What this adaptation comprehended was that we don’t actually want someone explaining Einstein to us. What is much more compelling – more accurate and clever – is simply to show what it’s like in other people’s brains. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump