Oscar Cahén

Oscar Cahén, visual artist (born 8 February 1916 in Copenhagen, Denmark; died 26 November 1956 in Oakville, ON).

Oscar Cahén, visual artist (born 8 February 1916 in Copenhagen, Denmark; died 26 November 1956 in Oakville, ON). In the 1950s Oscar Cahén was an award-winning magazine illustrator and abstract painter, and a member of the collective Painters Eleven. In 195354 his work was included in exhibitions that represented Canada abroad. Considered a seminal influence in the advancement of abstract art in Canada, Cahén is represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Early Life and Education

Oscar Cahén lived in seven different European countries before his arrival in Canada. He was the only child of a well-known journalist and anti-Nazi activist, Fritz Max Cahén, whose work required the family to move to Copenhagan, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Italy, and eventually live in exile. From 1930 to 1933, Cahén majored in graphic design at the Dresden Art Academy at the time painter Otto Dix was prominent there. He also received instruction in Italy, Paris and Stockholm. In the late 1930s, as the Nazi regime encroached, young Cahén experienced some terrifying moments when crossing the border into Czechoslovakia, and when later questioned by Czech police for having contraband short-wave radio equipment used in illegal anti-Nazi broadcasting. The family was broken up when his father left for the United States in 1937 and Cahén and his mother fled to England in late 1938.

Early Career

Oscar Cahén's first reviewed exhibition was held in November 1934 at Ole Haslund Haus, Copenhagen. He was 18. Of the landscapes, portraits, and advertising illustration he showed — the mixture of fine and applied art was to characterize his practice from then on — the illustrations received the most praise. In Prague after 1934, Cahén freelanced as a cartoonist and illustrator, and eventually taught at the progressive Rotter School of Advertising Art there in 1938. He continued his freelance work in England in 1939.

Cahén was sent to Canada in 1940 with hundreds of other men (mainly Jewish) who were interned by the British during the Second World War. Held in a refugee camp near Sherbrooke, Québec, and deprived of quality art supplies, he nevertheless began freelancing for the Montreal Standard as a story illustrator in 1942. The Standard's weekly supplement was syndicated across Canada, giving Cahén's humorous illustrations immediate national exposure. In October of that year, Cahén was released and he began work in Montréal as an advertising artist and magazine illustrator. In November 1943, now married to Martha (Mimi) Levinsky of Montréal, Cahén was included in an exhibition at the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts). He also became the highest paid artist in the commercial art studio Rapid, Grip, and Batten at $90 per week, leaving this post to become art director of Magazine Digest in Toronto in late 1944.

Cahén's illustration, which was often cubist or expressionist in feeling, was welcomed by art directors who wanted to feature something different from the prevailing slick, idealized American styles. By 1947 Cahén was taking on illustration jobs for the most prominent national magazines, such as Maclean's and New Liberty. He was also working up a series of paintings for exhibition, activity that increased when Cahén built a rural house and studio in King, Ontario. These bleakly coloured oils of contorted figures dealt with suffering and sorrow; Praying Man was his 1947 debut in the annual exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA). Cahén explored Christian themes from approximately 19481951, despite his apparent ambivalence about religion.

Later Career

In 1949, Cahén turned to abstraction, and over the next two years he gradually moved from interpreting recognizable subjects (people, plant and animal forms) in cubist terms to his own visual language of facets, bleeding ink lines, and thrusting and curved shapes. An influence at this time was the British artist Graham Sutherland, while Cahén’s circle of Toronto artist friends that included Albert Franck, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood provided critical stimulation. Cahén began showing frequently in annual exhibitions held by the art societies and gained attention in 1951 when conservative artists quit the OSA over the amount of modern art included in the show.

One of the most recognized illustrators in the country by 1950, Cahén was featured in every annual show of the Art Directors Club of Toronto 19491957, taking five medals and six awards. An illustration for a Maclean's story titled “The Most Beautiful Girl I Ever Knew” was included in the 31st Art Directors Club of New York annual for 1952.

Ever the experimenter, Cahén frequently mixed media in unexpected ways. In illustration and gallery art, it was not unusual for him to combine ink, watercolour, casein, and pastel on paper. He was also drawing into wax in a technique he called “monoetching,” and he worked in lithography and monoprint with Harold Town. His major works, however, were oil on masonite or canvas, in which he quickly developed a reputation as a colorist by juxtaposing vivid masses highlighted with complementary and analogous colour schemes. After 1954, Cahén began utilizing more calligraphic brushwork, and returned to figurative elements in his 1956 canvas The Warrior.

Cahén was active in artist groups such as the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, the OSA, the Art Directors Club of Toronto, and the Canadian Group of Painters in Water Colour; and he occasionally served as executive committee member, board of directors member, and juror. He and 10 other modernist artists banded together as the Painters Eleven in late 1953 — just when his oil Requiem was sent to the Second Bienal do Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the Tenth Inter-American Conference in Caracas, Venezuela.

Cahén’s place was firmly established in Canadian art when, in the space of four years (19531956) he participated in 43 art shows, including a solo show at Hart House in 1954. In 1956, he was invited to complete a cycle of murals for the new landmark Imperial Oil building. These were completed shortly before his death in a car accident on 26 November 1956. Cahén was 40.

Following his death, Cahén’s friends continued to enter his work into exhibitions for three years, and arranged a memorial solo exhibition in 1959 at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). He was posthumously awarded a Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal, and a Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Commerce (CAPIC) Lifetime Achievement Award. Retrospectives took place in 1968 at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, and in 1983 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.


Further Reading

  • David Burnett, Oscar Cahén (1983).