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.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis