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November 2, 2021

The World of Yousuf Karsh: A cinematographic complement by Ralph Elawani

Still, The Night of Iguana, 1964. Courtesy of Criterion Pictures

The MMFA has given writer, journalist and literary editor Ralph Elawani carte blanche to put together a film program in connection with the exhibition The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence. The movies will be shown at the Museum between November 3 and December 15, 2021.

The four screenings will highlight personalities immortalized by Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), an Armenian-Canadian photographer known as one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century. Ralph Elawani shares his thoughts on the genesis of the program and what guided his choice of films.

Why did you agree to take on this film curatorial project?

It seems more natural for me to answer the reverse question: “Why might you have refused to take on this project?” To which I would respond, a lack of resonance with the work. I don’t share Karsh’s attraction to the powerful of this world. Yet, his work is so broad and his legacy so huge that I felt something great could easily emerge from it, that a certain “resonance” was possible. What’s most important in a project of this kind is trust. I liked the idea of being given carte blanche, and that the limits were mainly related to technical or time constraints.

Tell us about the research you had to do to make the final selection.

Initially, I had imagined a program focused on Karsh: his personal history, his method, his ideals, his life, his associates, the themes that emerge from his aesthetic choices and portraits, his relationship with celebrity and notables, his connection with Armenia, his view of Canada and politicians, and his slightly conservative side, all of which is practically the antithesis of the avant-garde. The few exceptions to this are the portrait of Gratien Gélinas and the stunning photo, titled Elixir, in which we see Solange Gauthier’s reflection dancing nude. That said, rather than “settling scores” with the man (figuratively speaking) I decided to let his subjects do the work, especially those with whom he brought out something unique in my eyes.

To begin, I searched the artist's catalogues, watched Joseph Hillel’s documentary, Karsh Is History, 2009, and read his 1962 autobiography, In Search of Greatness, a title you wouldn’t dare imagine today. From the selection of photographs the Museum was going to present, I looked at about fifty personalities who had some connection with film. I compiled an initial selection of about sixty titles: short films, features, documentaries, fiction, film essays and concerts.

Where possible, I tried to find works that grouped together subjects who had been immortalized by the photographer. One example is a collaboration between the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi and the dancer Martha Graham. I also tried to choose films, where the subjects played roles that were a complete departure from their usual image, but whose core nature Karsh seemed to have captured, if I can put it that way. Anna Magnani, for example, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. These choices brought me back to the essential: the art. The program I’m proposing offers an array works, where avant-garde cinema, sculpture, animation, dance, architecture, literature and theatre combine.

Partial view of the exhibition. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

How might the selected films enrich the visitors’ experience of the exhibition and shed light on the personalities and themes evoked in it?

The chosen films are, in my opinion, works that shape the human experience. In them, the actors are sometimes cast in roles that contrast with the kind of formal candour that portraiture suggests. But, in a way, I think I am connecting with the photographer by choosing films that gave me an emotional jolt, like a kind of unexpected encounter. Matthew Rankin's alternate history of Mackenzie King is a rather burlesque case in point. The decision to show Oscar Apfel’s Ravished Armenia, a difficult film – or rather recovered fragments of a lost film – about the Armenian genocide, and The Ballad of Crowfoot by Willie Dunn, whose music is finally being rediscovered, also seemed to me to be natural choices to highlight Karsh’s background.

Would it be fair to say that this selection reflects your interests and preferred film styles?

It reflects an attempt to resonate with one selection of works through another selection of works. And since my interests cut across styles, the genres presented are quite varied. I would have loved to include the work of more filmmakers, such as Masahiro Shinoda. He adapted a short story by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata, whom Karsh photographed. I would also have liked to present an adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel, a Marian Anderson concert, Le temps des bouffons by Pierre Falardeau, a role for Gratien Gélinas in Gilles Carle's work, or Le monde du silence, co-directed by Louis Malle and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. But I had to keep within the constraints of a four-night schedule.

The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence
Until January 30, 2022
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion – Level 3

Credits and curatorial team An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Senior Curator Emeritus, MMFA. The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence was made possible by the generous contribution of the exhibition’s patron, Michel Phaneuf. The Museum wishes to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints, and thank its media partner La Presse. The Museum is profoundly grateful to the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their ongoing support.

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