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Oscar Cahén's Vulgar Modernism

Between 1946 and 1956, years during which Oscar Cahén's illustration became highly visible, the design community restlessly expressed disgust with the status quo of Canadian visual culture. As designer-critic Paul Arthur put it, the Group of Seven ideal had become 'an undigested lump sitting on the chest of the public ... a kind of droning of the radio' in the background of daily life, while mainstream illustration and design was a pathetic imitation of America's worst: 'unimaginative and preoccupied with "technical excellence ".' Oscar Cahén (1016-56) was instrument in breaking up this visual monotony with his illustration for New Liberty magazine in the late 1940s; they embodied what file critic J. Hoberman in Artforum (1982) termed vulgar modernism - a concept that has been developed in recent years by communication and culture theorist Henry Jenkins. This brash, monstrous aesthetic went on to inform Cahén's playful illustration for Maclean's in the 1950s, setting Canadian mass periodicals apart from Amercian middlebrow counterparts. Perhaps vulgar modernisms informs Cahén's abstraction as well.


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