MFA Review: Yousuf Karsh Who’s Who

MFA Review: Yousuf Karsh Who’s Who

“I do not make films primarily for children, I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty.” Can you guess who spoke these famous words? Guessing is a task that comes with viewing Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh’s exhibition in the Sharf Visitor Center of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Photographs by: Victoria Puzankova.

The museum presents a gallery of a lifetime’s worth of work.

Karsh’s twenty black and white photographs of icons from Hollywood’s Golden Age captures stars in their prime. From actors to directors, Karsh chose faces that will be recognizable for generations to come.

However, the museum chose to provide a test for the exhibit’s viewers: Who’s Who? They intentionally removed the name of either the celebrity or the character with which you would identify them. Instead they displayed one memorable quote by each idol beside each image.

The gallery visitors are given the opportunity to walk around the space and assess their knowledge of Hollywood with the hope that they won’t peek at the answers until they are finished. For some, the face itself may be the answer. For others, the quote may be the hint. And for a few of us who are not up to date on the classics of Hollywood, we have some homework to do.

Nonetheless, whether or not one recognizes each celebrity, Karsh’s photography is impeccable. A viewer can understand the importance of each figure from their pose, their emotion, and their surroundings. The portraits clearly embody the human beings themselves or the characters they so passionately played.

An admirer of Karsh’s work can see the level of sophistication and elegance that Audrey Hepburn left behind in her time, with her head held high and her eyes gazing downwards. Judy Garland’s name may not ring a bell for younger generations, but Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is present in her delicate smile and soft curls.

Similar to Karsh, American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld created portraits of celebrities from the 20th century in which he worked to reveal his “subject’s true essence”. Alongside Karsh’s work, the Museum of Fine Arts displayed Hirschfeld’s portrait of Karsh himself.

What separated the two artists was their choice of medium. Hirschfeld used pen and ink with graphite to create simple and unique portrayals. Karsh stated that he was “honored to be the subject of his whimsical, perceptive, nonmalicious drawing pen.”

Both artists pulled celebrities from all areas of the 20th century, but this exhibit specifically showcases who came out of the mid-1900s, due to the studio system achieving new advancements. The increase in film production and the founding of new genres gave birth to these legends.

Standing face to face with Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart takes you back to the time when film developed its true meaning.

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