Oscar Cahén (Profile)

MICHAEL CAHÉN remembers sitting quietly by his father's easel, watching as then-prominent Oscar CAHÉN flawlessly - and rapidly - drew an illustration. "He was incredible," Michael recalls. "He'd go with a hard pencil and - bingo! - out it came. You could see the story growing.
MICHAEL CAHÉN remembers sitting quietly by his father's easel, watching as then-prominent Oscar CAHÉN flawlessly - and rapidly - drew an illustration. "He was incredible," Michael recalls. "He'd go with a hard pencil and - bingo! - out it came. You could see the story growing.

Cahén, Oscar (Profile)

MICHAEL CAHÉN remembers sitting quietly by his father's easel, watching as then-prominent Oscar CAHÉN flawlessly - and rapidly - drew an illustration. "He was incredible," Michael recalls. "He'd go with a hard pencil and - bingo! - out it came. You could see the story growing. It was like an animation." Another favourite memory is of driving at dusk with his dad in the artist's Austin-Healey. "There was something romantic and magical about sports cars in those days," says Michael, now 59. "He loved sports cars."

Tragically in 1956, when Michael was 11, a gravel truck smashed into his father's Studebaker on a road near the family home in Oakville, Ont. Oscar Cahén, then 40 and at the height of his career, was killed. An acclaimed magazine illustrator, he was one of Maclean's most prized, prolific contributors, creating visuals for stories by Morley Callaghan and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. He was also an internationally renowned painter - "a volcano with a paint brush," one writer said - a bold colourist at the forefront of the abstract art movement in English Canada. Oscar had achieved all this despite - or perhaps because of - a chaotic youth. Escaping Germany for Czechoslovakia at 17 with his father, an anti-Hitler activist, he then joined the underground himself. Yet he was later interned in Britain and sent to an enemy alien camp near Sherbrooke, Que. Still, he emerged to become a leading Canadian artist. "Cahén's early death," wrote critic Paul Duval in Four Decades: The Canadian Group of Painters and their Contemporaries, 1930-1970, "may well have robbed Canada of its potentially greatest painter."

The Canadian art world lost a leading artist; Michael and his mother, Mimi, lost the family's centre of gravity. Following Oscar's death, Mimi plunged into a deep despair from which she never recovered. She became a recluse and clung, for decades, to everything belonging to her husband, in particular his artwork. Occasionally, in need of income, Mimi would sell a piece. She moved often, to various spots in Ontario and, later, Florida, where she lived until her death in 1990. Sadly, the widow didn't take good care of Oscar's work; sometimes, Michael says, paintings were left standing in an unused bathtub. Mimi was a heavy smoker, and the years of lighting one cigarette from another left pieces darkened and dirty. With little of his work being shown or traded, the artist fell out of view.

For the past two years, Michael has been toiling to restore his father's reputation. "I have a vision," he declares. "By the end of 2006, Oscar Cahén should be by every measure acknowledged as a top-tier Canadian artist." The painter's son, who is retired after three decades in investment banking and says he has no artistic talent himself, is devoting all his time to the revival of Oscar's name. "Normally you'd say the goal is to have a trans-Canada show in 2007," says Michael. "That isn't the goal. It's a deliverable, a result. The objective is to see it on the walls and to have people enjoy the work." An exacting man, he worries that he comes off as overbearing. "You've been warned about me," he often says upon meeting people for the first time, "I'm intense and all that stuff. The Cahéns, we tend to throw ourselves into what we are doing."

OSCAR CAHÉN was born in 1916 in Copenhagen, the son of a German Jewish intellectual, Fritz Max Cahén, who travelled widely in his career. He worked in senior levels of the post-First World War German government, wrote plays under a pseudonym, and was a newspaperman. Fritz, whom Michael got to know only after Oscar's death, was learned, multi-faceted and strict. "He was a very upright, starchy academic who spoke 10 languages," says Michael. In 1916, he was a correspondent in Denmark. Fritz and his Roman Catholic wife, Mali, both supported their son's wish to be an artist, but insisted on a proper education. Oscar studied at the prestigious Kunstakademie in Dresden, and in Paris, Italy and Stockholm.

In the early '30s, as the Nazi grip on Germany was tightening, Fritz became active in the anti-Hitler underground. In 1933, after receiving word he was about to be arrested, Fritz, with Mali and 17-year-old Oscar, escaped at dawn from Dresden and slipped across the border into Czechoslovakia. By 1937, Fritz had become a resistance leader, and even living outside Germany was dangerous. He left his wife and son to write about America for a Czech newspaper. In 1939, a U.S. publisher released Men Against Hitler, Fritz's fascinating account of his life in the anti-Hitler movement.

Oscar, too, was involved in the resistance. In Prague, he may also have been the family's main income earner. Fritz writes in his book that he had paying work only once in a while, noting that Oscar sold drawings to help the family. By 1938, a year after Fritz had fled Czechoslovakia, Oscar was teaching illustration and design at the Rotter School. Just before war broke out, he and Mali made their way to London, where she worked for the BBC, broadcasting propaganda to the Germans. Yet shortly after his arrival in Britain, Oscar was interned as an enemy alien and, in 1940, at age 24, he was sent to a prison camp near Sherbrooke.

An astute art director from the Montreal Standard, Ben Turner, discovered Cahén after a photo team from the newsweekly had shot pictures at the camp that included the artist at work. Curious about the internee, Turner commissioned him to do illustrations. Initially, the work was "down-beat - heavy proletarian pawns of fate clumping to the grave," in the words of Dick Hersey, who became a good friend of Cahén and art director of Weekend Magazine, which absorbed the Standard in 1951. But, later, Cahén delivered work that was "alive and delightful," said Hersey in a memoir following Cahén's death. About 18 months after he'd been interned, Cahén was released under the sponsorship of a Montreal impresario named Collin Gravenor, and he quickly became sought-after by magazine art directors who recognized his talent and wit as an illustrator. Between assignments, he continued to paint. In 1943, Cahén moved to Toronto.

"He didn't seem bitter about the war," says Michael, who expresses resentment on his father's behalf. "He was crawling under the fences in the fields, fighting in the resistance, and then the Canadians put him in prison." Despite that, Oscar loved Canada. In 1951, he told a Standard writer he was touched and proud when Canada made him a citizen in 1946. "It's exciting to be even a tiny part of a great new country's intellectual and artistic foundations," he said. But Michael perceives a hangover from the war in Oscar's paintings. "His work, for quite a while, always reflected some element of anguish or grief, or tragedy. He had that, that" - Michael searches for the right word - "that pathos always with him."

In 1953, Cahén and six other abstract artists showed their work - in an early precursor to product placement - in Simpson's storefront windows. Their paintings, hung behind sofas and chairs, beds and side tables, "caused consternation," according to one critic. Later that year, four others joined the group to form the renowned PAINTERS ELEVEN, which also included Jack Bush, Harold Town and Kazuo Nakamura (the subject of a current retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario). Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle had already taken Montreal by storm with their wildly abstract work. With a mandate to promote expressionist art, Painters Eleven shook up sedate Toronto, a city still enamoured of realism.

The significance of Painters Eleven, says Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the AGO, was more about the momentum it created than the artists' particular style. "At a time when there was little authority in this country to move ideas forward, this group of artists came together and boldly declared that there was a place for abstract art in Canada," Teitelbaum says. Cahén, one of the older, more experienced and more confident artists, was viewed as a group mentor. In the few years before his death, his work received more public notice and probably was more of a success on his home ground than his contemporaries'. Three years after his death, one critic even wrote, Oscar's spirit "still dominates and motivates the group." For Teitelbaum, Cahén had the potential, had he lived longer and continued to paint, to rank with Borduas and Riopelle.

Even as a boy, Michael knew it would fall on his shoulders to preserve his father's legacy. Through the years he collected clippings and bits of information about Oscar as he pursued his own life. He married and lived in London for 27 years, working as an investment banker and commodities trader. In a second life tragedy, Michael's wife died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1982, leaving him with four children aged 2 to 12. Finally, two years ago, he retired from business. His kids grown, he moved with his second wife, Maggie, to Gabriola Island off Nanaimo, B.C., and finally set to the task of rebuilding his father's reputation.

In 2002, Michael opened the Cahén Archives (www.oscarcahen.com) a block or so from "Gallery Row" along Granville Street in Vancouver. It's a small, sleek and graceful space on two levels connected by a metal spiral staircase. Some paintings sit on easels; others are hung on the wall. At the back is a two-storey window overlooking a tiny park. He's hired conservators - including one who cleans Oscar's paintings with Q-tips painstakingly drawn along each brush stroke. He employs high-end framers. He imports museum-quality glass, at $900 a sheet, for the finished product. To date, he's spent a few hundred thousand dollars.

Not surprisingly given his background, Michael has taken a businesslike approach to the project. He obsessively spells out tasks for himself, sets deadlines and charts his progress. And because in his previous life he was good at being a market maker, he's frustrated with the art world and how long it's taking for Oscar to get back on the art map. David Aurandt, executive director of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., is already convinced. "Oscar Cahén is one of those crucial artists who should be reconsidered," says Aurandt, whose public gallery, established in 1967 partly with money from the family of Alexandra Luke, one of the Painters Eleven, continues to collect and promote the group. "Now, in the 21st century, we've given ourselves permission to reconsider modernism."

Asked which works he favours, Michael says that's like being asked which of his children he loves most - but he indicates a colourful, oddly comforting abstract on paper above his desk. "That piece fills me with energy," he says. "I sit here sometimes and think, 'I've got such an uphill struggle ahead of me. I'm trying to move quickly in a glacial world. I'm trying to re-establish Oscar when people aren't interested, generally, and aren't inclined to get interested unless they are provoked.' I get weary. And I look at that piece and I'm completely renewed."

Maclean's October 25, 2004