The Face of Power

"Karsh has revealed, with naked clarity, the kind of man who is supremely successful in our century"

HUGH MacLENNAN May 1 1947

The Face of Power

"Karsh has revealed, with naked clarity, the kind of man who is supremely successful in our century"

HUGH MacLENNAN May 1 1947

The Face of Power

"Karsh has revealed, with naked clarity, the kind of man who is supremely successful in our century"


ALL contemporary artists the world over, the most likely candidate for immortality is the photographer Yousuf Karsh, Armenianborn Canadian citizen.

This statement is made in full knowledge that. Picasso, Rouault, Henry Moore and other great artists are still alive. It is not made in the sense of comparing Karsh to them. It is not even sensible to compare the merits of a photographer to those of a painter. Quite apart from his capacity as an artist, which is great, the future fame of Yousuf Karsh will be fortified by the unique nature of his subjects. He has photographed, and revealed through the filter of his powerful brain, most of the men who guided the western nations to victory in the Second World War. When history reaches out for an understanding of these men it will use Karsh’s portraits. No one who has seen these portraits can fail to be astonished by the nakedness of their veracity.

Great men rarely yield their secrets, especially if their greatness depends on the power they exercise over others. It is for this reason that statesmen and generals are seldom interesting. We are dazzled or frightened by the power they hold. We are painfully interested in what they do; what they do may kill us or save our lives. But we are seldom interested in them as real people, because they take good care to see to it that, as real people, we know nothing of consequence about them.

Portraits of kings, emperors and generals of past ages have one thing in common. Nearly all of them are dull. They tell us no more about their originals

than Grant’s Tomb tells us about General Grant. What do we learn of Queen Elizabeth by looking at the pictures of her? Merely that she had red hair, a thin face and wore too many clothes for the good of her health. Horatio Nelson was one of the most marvellously complex human beings who ever lived. But his monument in Trafalgar Square stands so high above the crowd that for all we know the face of a dustman may be underneath the pigeon-splashed, stone tricorne he wears. Recently there was a proposal to build a statue, on Dover Cliffs, of Winston Churchill wearing an admiral’s hat and brandishing a cigar. If Continued on page 35

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The Face of Power

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built, such a statue would have presented the war leader in his own carefully chosen disguise. Nobody knows better than Churchill himself that the cigars and the hats serve to humanize the elementally naked force compressed into his features.

Yousuf Karsh, with a gesture which has now become famous, took Churchill’s cigar away from him before snapping the camera. As a result he shows us not merely the façade of power, but the unmasked expression of power itself. He shows us a man of controlled and frightening violence, a man of superhuman will and energy, an uncanny kind of intelligence which has marched far beyond the limits of cynicism, a man of so many parts that inevitably some portions of his nature are at war with others, yet withal a man whose face haunted Hitler before the war and drove him to despair during it.

This is the picture which made Karsh famous overnight. On the heels of its success he was sent to London to photograph the wartime great of Britain. On his return from London he was commiasioned to make a series of portraits in Washington of American leaders and later to go to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. Both before and after these Special missions Karsh took many magnificent photographs of men less well-known. He has recently published 75 of the hundreds of portraits he has made in a book called “Faces of Destiny” (ZiffDavis, New York).

As Karsh himself reveals in this book, without saying so too specifically, the method he used with Churchill is the method he follows on every possible occasion. He removes the stage props, the carefully calculated gestures and expressions which great men use much as a conjurer employs byplay to conceal the real business of the act. Karsh goes straight to the point every time. He concentrates on the character harmony produced by the essential cast of features, by the essential look in the eyes, by the essential position of the hands. General Eisenhower, for instance, is presented without the famous grin. As a result a pair of judging eyes stare out of a face as hard as steel, yet a face whose hardness we feel was necessary, because without it both he and the countries he served would have been lost.

Men of Power

In his book Karsh offers us 26 statesmen, three United States senators, 10 generals, four admirals, the respective wartime chiefs of aviation in the British Empire and the United States, four royal personages, five famous businessmen who have also held public office, two publishers, six writers, one architect, one actor, two graphic artists, three diplomats (including Eleanor Roosevelt), two labor leaders, one scholar, one clergyman and one superdetective. The portrait of Mr. James McIntosh, chief messenger of the office of the Chief of Staff, United States Army, completes the total.

With only 10 exceptions, Karsh’s pictures are exactly what he claims them to be in the title of his book. They are faces of destiny. They are faces of men who like power, wield power, and above all, understand power. It is only when we examine his portrait gallery as a whole that we fully grasp the nature of his achievement. Karsh has revealed to us with naked clarity the kind of man who is supremely successful in our century.

The desire for power, the capacity to exercise it, have existed at all times. But the methods and manners of exerting power have varied according to the values, beliefs, superstitions, needs, capacities, knowledge and tensions of the times and places. The princely cardinals of Renaissance Italy, who compelled Galileo to announce publicly that the world did not revolve around the sun, did not resemble Karsh’s subjects. The emotional, talkative, poetry-loving statesmen of Queen Elizabeth’s era, revealed to us by Shakespeare and by their own writings, men who thought it no shame to weep in public, who faced a dangerous life with childlike zest and recklessness, would have been chilled and frustrated by the icy, close-lipped Cordell Hull. Self-confident, meat-eating Victorians, like Peel and Gladstone, would not have preserved for long their stolid belief in the inevitability of progress in a world where J. Edgar Hoover is necessary. Karsh has shown us that the face of power in the twentieth century is a very special kind of face. Indeed, one might almost call it a specialized face.

It is for this reason that Karsh, in my opinion, is sure of immortality. He has made an authentic and absolutely authoritative commentary on our age. Other artists in the past, Holbein, Van Dyck and Rodin for instance, have painted or sculptured famous men. But none have made portraits of so many who are truly representative. By the time Karsh has finished his work he will very probably have rounded out his gallery by pictures of great scientists, engineers and industrialists. He will have photographed the majority of the men whose work, creative or administrative, makes our age uniquely what it is. A hundred years from now people will go' to Karsh to see what dominant characteristics our age demanded in its leaders.

What will history think of them? All men judge others by the standards of their own background. We can only begin to guess what our descendants will think of us. But it is certain that we can understand better the nature and necessities of our own era if we take the time to assess the tone, character, possibilities and limitations of the men who have been studied by Yousuf Karsh.

For many years European thinkers have been telling us that the age we live in is decadent. For them, as Europeans, this may be true. But we in the British Commonwealth and the United States are no longer dominated by Europe, not even in the realm of ideas. The supreme attribute of decadence is weakness in the will. In a decadent society leaders are almost always capricious, unreliable and devoid of inner confidence. At their best they see too many sides of any public question to commit themselves to a single bold plan of action. They become like Hamlet, dissipating their force by too much speculation. At their worst they are cynical tyrants, irresponsibly and hysterically cruel and they retain power because they surround themselves with men as vicious as themselves. Karsh shows us that whatever else our society may be, it is not decadent. Not yet.

The single quality which unites all of Karsh’s men of action amid their many differences is the obvious fact that they have wills like steel. In nearly every one of his faces will power and logic completely dominate imagination. One looks—as Karsh makes us look—at Eisenhower, Admiral King, Cunningham, Churchill, Alanbrooke, Roosevelt, Marshall, Portal and Arnold. Then one thinks of the creatures they vanquished. Suddenly the Axis leaders

seem amateurs of power compared to these men. Compared to Churchill and Roosevelt, Hitler was a screaming hysteric. Compared to Admirals Cunningham and King, Doenitz and Raeder were a pair of sour-minded, shifty little bureaucrats. Beside Portal, Milch looks like a circus showman. These men Karsh photographed lack many qualities. Not very many of them invite affection. But few of them lack the supreme quality necessary for a great leader. They have character. They have immense moral force.

Mora] force, let us note, has nothing to do with whether a man is morally good or bad. It depends on a man’s absolute inner conviction that he can carry through the job in hand without breaking under the strain, without losing his judgment, without becoming theatrical. It is quite as much a weapon as it is an attribute. In the past it has often rested on religion. Cromwell believed he wras the Lord’s agent and Gladstone thought he was God’s mouthpiece. Abraham Lincoln trusted humbly in Divine Guidance.

The Great Are Lonely

How many of Karsh’s subjects derive their strength from a deeply felt personal faith in God? Roosevelt did, as we well know. Prime Minister King most certainly does. King George does. Karsh had no opportunity to make a real study of Roosevelt, but he reveals religious faith in the eyes of the latter two men. A close study of most of these men of power leads one to believe that their strength comes, not from reliance on a present deity, but from a sure belief in their own integrity. By integrity I mean nothing more than the inner strength which prevents a man from betraying himself. The faith of most of Karsh’s subjects seems to derive from their sureness that they have the know-how to win and the will power to get the results they want.

These men are strained, isolated, specialized. They are products of an age of exact science and massive technical power. Many of them have been disillusioned. They have learned, to their bitterness or satisfaction, that such variables as human courage, faith, loyalty and resolution are helpless against the blind and exact power of machines. They have learned that, in an age of science, time marches too fast to allow leisure for the enjoyment of life, or even for the fruits of science itself, if one also wishes to obtain power and hold mastery over other men.

Not all of them, of course. By no means all of them. And here lies still another excitement in Karsh’s book. It contains contrasts that are startling, brilliant and sometimes poignant.

We see Lord Alanbrooke, who—we are told—more than any other soldier, created the British Army after Dunkirk. His picture follows that of Ernest Bevin. If Bevin has the hardness of rough stone, this man has the toughness of polished steel. Looking at Alanbrooke’s face one knows that his purpose must be sane and intelligent. But once decided, nothing—absolutely nothing—would deflect him. One reads with initial surprise in Karsh’s comment, which accompanies the picture, that Lord Alanbrooke likes birds. Then one is no longer surprised. Birds are high and lonely too.

Consider the portraits of our two Canadian soldiers, General Crerar and General McNaughton. Then ask yourself why it was inevitable that Crerar superseded McNaughton. Karsh’s pictures of the two men give at least one answer. Crerar’s face and expression show that he belongs fully to this century. It is a “specialized” face. The sharp eyes focus directly on a single

point. One hand lightly grips the wrist of the other. Crerar is concentrated. His will seems canalized. McNaughton, on the contrary, seems to know almost too much, he is proud and acquainted with doubt. His scientific imagination chafes at the monastic limits imposed by the necessities of military power. Is this what Karsh sensed when he showed him peering into the higher, unseen distance, his tense hands clutching and wrinkling the chest pockets of his uniform?

Of all these faces, the one which seems to me to reflect the distilled essence of the spirit of our time is that of J. Edgar Hoover, the leader of the G-Men. Here is a terrific concentration of relentless, nervous, lonely ability harnessed to a single purpose by a will so strong one wonders how his tense body manages to contain it. Here is a man who knows that to enforce the law in the modern industrialized United States one must be as precise, efficient , merciless and unreflective as a machine. Surely Hoover is a man for whom nothing counts but results. Elis stubby fingers lock into each other like the jaws of a bear trap. God help the criminal who crosses him. He will think further, act faster, and strike harder than any of them would dream of doing.

The Idealists

How do the idealists appear among Karsh’s subjects?

Sir Stafford Cripps is uneasy. He looks at us like a brilliantly clever student sitting on tacks waiting to give answers to a group of professors he believes have always underrated him and will, in any case, lack the intelligence to know what he is talking about.

Henry Wallace is a man in middle life, but in spite of the greyness in the hair and the crow’s-feet about the eyes, he still seems young. No appetite or aptitude for power shows in his sensitive hands; they might belong to a surgeon. He reminds one of an intense and well-thought-of senior in a denominational college in the American Middle West, a lad who has made himself respected even by the loafers and poker players, has been president of various student societies, and finally has been appointed valedictorian of his class. As Karsh shows him to us, he might even be the leader of the debating team. He has mastered all the arguments. His side is right. Only last night he has read a speech by Abraham Lincoln. But will the judges be fair? Older people never seem to possess the simple common sense of youth. Also there are rogues in the world. But surely it is unreasonable that people should refuse to listen to a reasonable man talking common sense? They listened to Lincoln. Meanwhile the debate must still be won. After that there will be many more debates. Even a lifetime of debating may be necessary, but ultimately the truth, like murder, will out. Is this why Henry Wallace, a man most of us would like to have as a personal friend, takes his place among the close-lipped, hardhanded men who have learned that in their business personal friends are luxuries?

Clement Attlee, by a beautiful touch of symbolism on the part of the photographer, holds a copy of a San Francisco newspaper in his hand and smiles his good will at the whole world. We like Attlee. Here is a man who knows the score and has chosen the weaker team because the weaker team needs him. Eluman beings come no better than this man.

Sir William Beveridge, at first glance, seems to be smiling. Then we suddenly realize that his lips are closed, his eyes

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are rather grim, and the thumbs of his bony hands are hooked into the lower pockets of his waistcoat. He has been a ; teacher. He knows how hard it is for ! stupid people to get the point. “There you are!” he seems to be thinking. “I’ve showed you how to do it. I’ve ■ showed you perfectly clearly, and now you very probably will go off and act just as stupidly as you always do.” There is knowledge in the eyes of Sir William Beveridge. He has no illusions about a world containing the Hoovers, the Alanbrookes, the Beaverbrooks and the Molotovs. He knows that the furious passions and inner conflicts Karsh has revealed in the face : of John L. Lewis will not be eager to

j advance the cause of labor by the peaceful methods he advocates. A {)ure idealist might be defined as a man who is positive that other men, with equal knowledge, will be as reasonable as himself. A pure cynic is a man who j is positive that nobody, not even him' self, can ever be reasonable at all. Sir William Beveridge is obviously no cynic. But from the picture Karsh has taken of him one is justified in assuming he is only a moderate idealist.

We pass on to H. G. Wells. No writer of our century wielded a greater influence than did Wells in his prime, nor was any olher so self-confident. He sincerely believed that men, if educated to a better course, would be sure to follow it. He was confident that material progress would usher in the millennium. In book after book he attacked the old religious concept of life. Science became his god. He was opposed in principle to the humanities of education. He was sure that science would make us wise, and that wisdom would make us kind.

Karsh shows us an older and sadder Wells. The eyes are almost closed. Light as from a church window strikes his forehead. His hands are clasped as if in prayer before an altar. Shortly j after this picture was taken Wells published his last book. It was called “Mind at the End of Its Tether.”

The Aristocrats

Among these portraits of modern men appear several of aristocrats who, in spirit and training, belong to an earlier and more urbane age. Notable among them are Henry Stimson and former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. It is interesting to note that the two most aristocratic-looking men in the whole collection are Americans. Bui the difference visible in their expressions is startling.

Chief Justice Hughes has the air of a man who knows he no longer belongs to our time and is on the whole thankful he doesn’t. Noble, good-humored, magnificent, he retired from public life in 1941. He sat to Karsh like an ancient patriarch who knows his work is done. When the sitting was finished he said: “Now leitest thou thy servant depart in peace.” We look at him and feel envious. The times which molded him were kindlier than our own, and they also had more savor.

Henry Stimson, on the other hand, is a man of Hughes’ own vintage who, with the fidelity of an ancient republican Roman, served his country until the Second World War was won. By a strange irony it was Stimson, perhaps the most civilized man in the United States Government, who had to recommend that the atomic bombs be dropped on Japan. With typical integrity he has made no secret of his share in this terrible act. Sad, humble, resolute, his old eyes have ! seen hope after hope rise like a mirage I and melt away. He has seen Bismarck j replaced by the Kaiser and the Kaiser j by Hitler. He has witnessed, helplessly,

the weak complacency of President Hoover and Prime Minister Baldwin in the face of Japan’s disregard of treaties. He has been forced to temper his own inner gentleness to the iron he saw confronting him. How strange it is that the two gentlest faces in the whole Karsh collection should belong to Henry Stimson, Secretary of State for War, and General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army! Both these men are like Romans of the great period of Roman character.

Roman also are Lord Wavell and Sumner Welles. Wavell, though only nine years senior to Welles, seems to belong to an older generation. He is more rugged. He is not drawn so fine. But both of these men, each with his own emotions, could have sat in the Roman senate after Cannae and, with Hannibal at the gate and no new army obtainable for years, have voted to resist to the end. In a superb picture Welles stands with folded arms before a closed door, straight, slim and upright, looking into your eyes.

It Was Like This in Rome

It is inevitable that one should think of Rome when one studies this book of Yousuf Karsh. The only portraits of public men which can be compared to these in any sense are the great portrait busts of the ancients. The lines in the face of Julius Caesar are the same lines we find in the face of Lord Alanbrooke. The nameless sculptor who put Augustus on his monument has shown to twenty centuries the icy coldness of that dictator’s solitude. Augustus and Cordell Hull could have understood each other by the exchange of a single glance.

And why not? The Romans of the period of the first two Caesars were men very much like ourselves. They had lived through a period of civil war and class violence. Their entire economic system was disorganized. They had fought a whole cycle of foreign wars, and, as a result of their victories, found themselves saddled with the responsibility of many nations besides their own. On one side of them were dying cultures, on the other were cultures struggling to be born. The brute force of barbarism lurked in the forests across the Rhine and Danube. Like us, these Romans lived in a period of decaying faith and superlative advances in organizational and engineering skill. Like us, they came to believe that it is only through centralized control, exercised by a vast apparatus of state, that men can be governed efficiently. Like us, they had character, but character strained to the breaking point by violent experiences. Also like us, they had faith in little beyond their own abilities. Can we hazard a guess about what the future holds after comparing the men of our own time with these Romans?

Under the first Roman emperor all for a time went well. Peace was established and enforced. The known world was policed by troops. Economic reorganization vastly increased the world’s wealth. Even the poets of Rome seemed delighted by the superior organization and concentrated power their leaders had given their nation. Then, with the second emperor, people looked around them and felt that life was beginning to lose its savor. Very rapidly after this the inevitable decadence set in.

Walk through the great hall of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or obtain from your public library a copy of a book containing the portrait busts of the emperors of the decadence. Stop before the bust of Nero and look well, remembering as you do that under him

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the Empire was prosperous for many years. It was a genius who revealed in polished stone the oyster-soft, neurotic cruelty of Nero’s character. Walk ; a few steps farther down the hall and I stop before the wrinkled forehead of I Caracalla. Here has been engraved every infirmity of supreme power without ability, of supreme authority without morals: low cunning, suspicion so all-embracing it defeats its own ends, cynicism, inner terror, hatred, and the kind of cruelty which strikes blindly to destroy, without intelligence, whatever its haunted imagination dreads. How did a sculptor manage to reveal such things about a tyrant and live? Within the stone of the head itself posterity has the answer. Caracalla was stupid. He was too insensate to understand that the slave artist, whom he confronted in his toga, saw through its purple to the nakedness of the man within.

Fortunately for us who are now alive, the men Karsh portrays are not men of decadence. Nor does it necessarily j follow that, after the present iron age,

I the overstrained character is sure to break and a decline set in, though history, for what it may be worth, points inexorably in that direction. Perhaps, for the time being, it is just as well to be content with what Karsh has to tell us about the nature of power in the western world today.

Two thoughtful men, Lord Acton and Henry Adams, have each uttered fam-

ous statements on the nature of power.

Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All great men are bad.”

Henry Adams said: “Power is poi-

son.” Accepted superficially, as it usually is, this is the statement of a man disgusted by what he has seen of public life. But if we think about it more carefully, we realize that the statement is essentially tragic, whether Adams intended it to be so or not.

Somebody must assume the burden of power if organized society is to exist. Power issues its own rules. It is a separate world. It creates its own climate. To wield power with integrity, a man must accept a sort of poison within his veins. He can afford few friends among his equals lest it become his public duty to betray them. He can afford few luxuries lest he soften his purpose. He must starve his spirit lest his imagination revolt against the narrowness of the life he leads. In fighting against villains he must often use the methods of a villain, and be prepared to take advantage of fear, shame, hatred, vanity and ambition in the men with whom he inevitably must deal. In guarding civilization he must on occasion act like a savage.

With few exceptions the subjects of Yousuf Karsh come under this latter definition of power. However much they may differ in capacities and aims, they have this one thing in common. They are tense, lonely men, controlling the destinies of a tense, lonely age. -fa