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“There are many here tonight to honour Oscar Cahén who never knew him. That’s unfortunate, because to some degree we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

I would like to make a few personal observations of what it was like to be an adolescent with only hope of becoming an illustrator when Oscar arrived on the scene from Europe in the early 1940’s.

You have to realize first that the frugal budgets of Canadian magazines, for the most part, prohibited the use of full-colour, except perhaps on the cover.

The result was a rather grey look that permeated the pages of our periodicals. Grey. Except of course when horrible screened overlays of process yellow, blue or red were sometimes arbitrarily zapped across an illustration. I don’t want to knock the many fine illustrators who preceded us, but, so many others either relied on the boy-girl clichés of the time or tried to be so conservatively realistic that the visual results represented what was inherently condescending in the descriptive words – “Commercial Art”.

I think most young, aspiring Canadian illustrators’ perceptions of what illustration could be in the 1940’s had been formed, predominately, by the opulent, full-color and highly developed painterly tradition in the American periodicals of the time. The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, McCall’s and Esquire, to name a few.

But when I saw Oscar’s illustrations in the Canadian magazines for the first time, you knew a new age had just dawned on the horizon. And it looked neither Canadian or American.

It was as if one had never seen a crocus before and a flower with strength and vigour; but extraordinary delicacy thrust through the snow and winter debris of what much of Canadian magazine publishing had been. Spring arrived in Canadian illustration with Oscar Cahén – and we rejoiced.

Oscar broke new ground and showed us wit, humour and lightheartedness. But it didn’t stop there. There was a graphic quality that transcended mere charm. When Oscar did a one or two color job, it seemed that that was the only way it should be done. It was not an illustration that wanted to be full color and somehow fell a little short because of reproduction limitations.

Because I was so imbued with the pervasive American influence, my early education or observations did not include the rich European tradition of storytelling and decorative art. It was totally unknown to me. And it was only as an adult that artists and illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Gustav Klimpt, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others who enlightened the early twentieth century came within my visual grasp. It was that tradition that may have supplied the nutrients to the taproots of Oscar’s early growth and emergence as a fully developed and unique artist on the Canadian scene.

I was always amazed as a youth how Oscar could move from whimsy to mystery to romantic fiction and then to documentary or serious subject matter without really changing his style. And yet each expressed the integrity of the manuscript.

What that versatility suggested was what every aspiring artist hoped would emerge in their own work; their own unique vision and the articulation of that vision with a personal and rich expression. Oscar had that in abundance. It is also the difference between illustration and commercial art. Oscar’s work could be realistic. But never boringly literal. He never let literal realism stand in the way of making a good picture.

When assessing Oscar’s contribution you must keep in context with the times; and remember, too, that they were all drawn out of his head. When I try to tell my illustration students at O.C.A. that once upon a time illustrators not only conceived the idea without starting with a batch of photographs, but could actually draw people, places and things without photographic reference, they think I am either lying or that such an idea is so bizarre that it is dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic. And they think it was only a silly, if not tragic oversight on God’s part that a lucigraph was not made an extension of the human anatomy.

I remember furtively studying Oscar’s originals in the various magazine art departments, or Toronto and Montreal Art Director’s Club annual shows. I say furtively, because on the one hand, I was beginning to receive recognition for my own work as it was developing in the early fifties, but on the other, I knew there was much to learn from Oscar. But it was so hard to resist being directly influenced by his work. As a young impressionable illustrator, you had to approach his work with caution, lest it grab you by the scruff of young innocence and inexperience and lead you in directions your inner light was guiding along other paths. You had to be nimble to avoid being constantly in the shadow of Oscar’s talent.

If mentally, you could disassociate human subject matter from within the drawing, that drawing which was like a surgical incision. Definite, confident, but oh so sensitive, you could understand Oscar’s attraction to pure abstraction. Concurrent with his illustrative career, his was emerging with Harold Town, another dominant force in Canadian abstract art.

I won’t expand on Oscar’s achievements in the fine art field. But only because we are here as illustrators and photographers to celebrate the achievements of a fellow illustrator.

He cleared the way with dash and panache to allow sophistication and sunshine to fall upon a dreary landscape of publishing.

To accept on behalf of Oscar’s family, the award designed by Tom McNeely, I would like to welcome and old friend of mine and Oscar’s who was the associate art director at Maclean’s during the time we speak of. Desmond English.”


Speech given by James Hill at The CAPIC President’s Dinner March 1988
CAPIC Lifetime Achievement Awards

Presentation of the CAPIC Lifetime Achievement Award 

to Oscar Cahén on March 26th 1988


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