Art, Arts & Entertainment

MMFA’s ‘The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence’ captures the nobles of the 20th century

Situated on the third floor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence displays 111 works by Yousuf Karsh, one of Canada’s most well-known portrait photographers. Having immigrated to Canada from Armenia at a young age, he eventually gained fame and recognition on the world stage for his work as a portraitist. At first glance, the exhibit exudes a serious air, akin to the feeling of flipping through a grandparent’s childhood album. The tone of the Sunday morning crowd studying Karsh’s photos was one of quiet wonder. The exhibition reflects many of the qualities that make Karsh’s work so unique; though at first the portraits appear unassuming, upon further examination they stun with their breadth of knowledge and experience. 

Filled to the brim with Karsh’s signature silver gelatin black and white photographs, the first of the exhibition’s three rooms is similar to the quiet stoicism of a library. However, the portraits lose this solemnity once viewed up close, for beneath all their formality, the people pictured emit a warmth and liveliness. Arranged in chronological order, the photos in the first room are simple scenes, like his first wife standing beneath a tree or his teacher reading the newspaper. After 1941, they explode into a myriad of celebrity portraits, becoming a window into 20th-century high society.

Displayed prominently at the entrance is Karsh’s most famous photo, The Roaring Lion, which depicts Winston Churchill on a visit to Canada in 1941. It is the same picture, interestingly enough, used on the five-pound British note. Dominating the room with its stateliness and singularity, the portrait is a reflection of what many describe as the characteristics of Churchill himself. This capturing of a person’s essence extends through all of Karsh’s work, from Audrey Hepburn and Nelson Mandela to Canadian steelworkers and farmers.

Although primarily known for his celebrity portraits, Karsh considered his photographs of Canadian workers to be an important part of his portfolio. Karsh depicts these workers as they stand covered in motor oil or knee-deep in grain, looking perfectly at ease next to neighbouring photos of Albert Einstein and Glenn Gould. While the exhibit presents only a few of these modest shots, one of Karsh’s quotes regarding assembly workers speaks volumes: “I tell you, these workers are the peers of those men who are better known. I say this not in disparagement of the great ones, but in humble recognition of the same qualities of greatness in these industrial workers.”

Karsh masterfully captures each individual’s nuanced personality, highlighting even the most subtle expressions. Next to the photographs, short anecdotes of Karsh’s conversations with the people in his portraits enhance the overall experience, allowing viewers to feel as though they know these individuals personally, as if they had been transported back in time to the 20th century. In The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence the complexity and greatness of individual personhood are fully encapsulated.

The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence is on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts located at 1380 Sherbrooke St. W until January 30, 2022.

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