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Oscar Cahén, visual artist (born, 8 February 1916 in Copenhagen; died, Oakville, 26 November 1956). In the mid 1950s Oscar Cahén was a leading magazine illustrator and abstract painter in Canada, a member of the collective Painters Eleven. In 1953-54 his work was included in the exhibition to represent Canada in the Second Bienal do Museo de Arte de Sao Paulo, Brazil. Considered a seminal influence in the advancement of abstract art in Canada, his work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.



Oscar Cahén benefited from living 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 that the family move to Copenhagan, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and Italy, and eventually live in exile. From 1930 to 1933, Oscar Cahén majored in graphic design at the Dresden Art Academy at the time painter Otto Dix was prominent there. He also took 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 for 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.


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, modernist Rotter School of Advertising Art there in 1938. He continued his freelance work in England in 1939.

Cahén was brought to Canada in 1940 with hundreds of other mainly Jewish men interned by the British during the Second World War. Held in a refugee camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec. His artistic attributes gained his release; he 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 Montreal as an advertising artist and magazine illustrator. In November 1943, now married to Martha (Mimi) Levinsky of Montreal, Cahén had his first Canadian exhibition at the Art Association of Montreal (now Montreal 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 (unusual in Canada at the time), 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 moved into a house and studio in King, Ontario, in 1947. 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 approximately 1948-1950, despite his apparent ambivalence about religion. 

Image Credit: Canadian Art




In about 1949, Oscar 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 Jack Bush, 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 each year in the annual shows of the Art Directors Club of Toronto and took medals twice. A Maclean’s illustration for a story titled “The Most Beautiful Girl I Ever Knew” was included in the 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 very active in artist groups, and served in leadership roles or as a juror for the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, the OSA, the Art Directors Club of Toronto, and the Canadian Group of Painters in Water Colour. He and ten other modernist artists banded together as 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 (1953-1956), 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 on November 26, 1956, in a car accident. 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 (Art Gallery of Toronto). More retrospectives took place in 1968 (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota) and 1983 (Art Gallery of Ontario).

Fogwood Farm
1942 Montreal


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