Lot # 008
CGP CSGA CSPWC OSA P11 1915 - 1956 Canadian
oil on canvas on board circa 1954
30 x 48 in 76.2 x 121.9 cm
Estimate: $60,000 ~ $80,000 CAD
The Isaacs Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Dr. G. Bagnani, Toronto
Sold sale of Canadian Art, Ritchie's, June 4, 1997, lot 12
By descent to the present Private Collection, Vancouver
Art Gallery of Toronto, 15 Years in Retrospect, September - October 1962
Oscar Cahén was a central figure in the world of Canadian art in the early 1950s. His dazzling colour, graphic flair and inventive compositions earned him the admiration of his contemporaries. Aquaphobia is an exemplary, rare, large-scale painting entirely indicative of his audacious talent. Born in Copenhagen to German-Jewish parents, Cahén fled Germany with his family to evade capture by the Nazis. Cahén attempted in 1941 to escape to Britain, where, by cruel fate, he was incarcerated and later sent to an internment camp at Sherbrooke, Quebec. His skill as a draughtsman was noted and thus drew the attention of a supporter who sponsored his release in 1942. He then settled in Montreal and rapidly became recognized as one of the most gifted, successful, award-winning magazine illustrators of the day. His witty, stylish designs were selected for the covers of Montreal’s The Standard, Maclean’s and Magazine Digest, among others. In 1946 he moved to Toronto to accept a top post with Maclean’s. It is at this point that he began to rekindle his interest in also producing fine art paintings and drawings.
Between 1947 and 1949, Cahén produced a mere handful of paintings, experimenting in an attempt to establish his unique artistic voice. By 1950, he had transformed. He submitted works and was selected for inclusion in nearly every conceivable national art society exhibition. Prior, his aesthetic allegiances were to humanism and semi-abstract figuration. From 1950 until his tragic death in a car accident in November 1956, at age 40, his evolution and stylistic growth would be meteoric.
However, where do we place Aquaphobia along the artist’s developmental path? The artist infrequently dated his works. Thus far, we have not found evidence that Aquaphobia was ever exhibited in his lifetime. The only verified exhibition was the Art Gallery of Toronto’s Cahén tribute, 15 Years in Retrospect, in 1962.
Cahén also doubled back to re-explore previous styles and themes. So dating his works poses problems. Works such as Masque (1950) commenced the move towards a related progressive approach blending abstracted narrative figuration with abstract formalism. His painting Vegetation, from 1951, employed a cast of tragicomic anthropomorphic flower forms. Yet certain factors lead me to surmise that Aquaphobia is from 1953 or more likely 1954, perhaps the period of his greatest dominance. In 1953 his works were included in 10 significant exhibitions. He won a Canadian National Exhibition purchase award, one of his works was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, and his work was selected as part of the Canadian representation to the Second Bienal do Museo de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil. Cahén participated in the bellwether exhibition Abstracts at Home, and following that exhibition, he took a leadership role in forming the group Painters Eleven, in October of 1953.
Immediately thereafter, Cahén undertook a trip that may have a bearing upon the creation of Aquaphobia. He and his wife spent January through mid-February of 1954 at the Sea Grape Motel on Casey Key beach, a few miles from Nokomis, Florida. Upon his return to Toronto, he submitted a list of works for inclusion in his spring 1954 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Among them was a work named Aquatic Forms (listed as approximately the same dimensions as Aquaphobia). In 1955, the couple purchased a beachfront house at Manasota Key, along with a second lot across the sand road with a fishing dock on the bay.
It may not be demonstrable that the painting Aquaphobia conveys the idea of an abnormal fear of water. However, it does conjure association with sea creatures, anemone, amoeba and the drama of the life cycle of nature. Aquaphobia employs signature Cahén colour counterpoints, and it is a mature accomplished work by a master of the brush. Thin veils of greys, neutrals and blacks shroud all in an evocative, mysterious, otherworldly glowing light. These dark areas act to bracket and compress, making more luminous the lushly applied exquisite tropical blues of the Gulf Coast. Coral, magenta, pink, reds and orange are sparingly applied as accents to offset the cool palette of diverse blues and green.
Cahén’s career was cut short, and he produced very few larger-scale paintings. Aquaphobia is picture-perfect: Canadian mid-century modern at its finest.
We thank Jeffrey Spalding for contributing the above essay. Spalding is an artist, curator, author and educator. For more than 40 years, Spalding has served in leadership roles at art museums and educational institutions. He is currently an art consultant for the Tao Hua Tan Cultural and Creative Company, and a Lifetime Senior Artist, Tao Hua Tan International Artist Creative Residency, China.