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Oscar Cahén: The Power of Illustration

Original article published on Canadian Design Resource. Explore brand Canada and everything Canadian Design on

"Most things considered elegant nowadays are merely decadent."

Illustrator and painter Oscar Cahén was one of the most versatile and avant-garde artists of the mid-twentieth century in Canada. He was also a powerful advocate for the artistic and social potential of illustration. That he is not a household name is wrong, and speaks to the historical neglect design history has suffered in Canada. Subsequent generations have been deprived of the opportunity to learn from his example, and Canadian illustration has not really expanded beyond what Cahén did more than half a century ago.

What made Cahén special beyond a natural talent was his modernist European schooling, work experience, and cultural background. Canadian art directors were quick to award him editorial illustration and covers for most of the national magazines, including The Standard, New Liberty, Maclean’s, and Chatelaine.

In an interview for Canadian Art he stated “it is fine for the modern Art Director of a publication to think of the “Public” as long as it does not completely dominate the approach to his work …of all the professional visual arts, Editorial Illustration is one of the few which offers truly great opportunity for creative work, and it is unfortunate that few Art Directors realize the potential power of their position, namely, the opportunity to contribute actively towards the cultural development of our society.”

When Cahén was killed in 1956 at age 40, few could fill his shoes as a commercial art advocate, much to the detriment of the field. With him, the role of the illustrator as a public intellectual was lost—by re-introducing him here, perhaps this potential can be reclaimed.

Cahén had been well launched into his career in Europe, and his contribution to Canadian visual culture came only by chance when he was unexpectedly exiled from England as a prisoner of war in 1940. His Canadian freelance work began in the refugee camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec when he came to the attention of The Standard after they did a story on the internees. In October 1942 Cahén was released and he began doing illustration for a Montreal agency. In 1943 he had his first exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art.

In 1943 Oscar Cahén joined Rapid, Grip and Batten to produce advertising art, and posters for the war effort. He was adept at adding gravitas and visual interest to black-and-white work, rendering figures in an Expressionist manner.

Late in 1944 Cahén moved to Toronto to work as art director for Magazine Digest, and he filled its pages with cartoons and full colour covers. These were the first opportunity Cahén had to indulge his vivid and unconventional colour sense. He continued to do more work for The Standard, using styles never produced in Canada before—such as the very cubist and cartoony treatment of the “Two Russians and a Quarrel”, and humour like the cover that depicts children discovering their hockey pond’s ice has broken up.

Cahén was so well known as an illustrator of girls that his opinion on how they should dress was solicited. He never lost an opportunity to proselytize for modernism, and said, “I disapprove severely of all unnecessary decoration and detail like buttons, bows, pleats, false pockets …most things considered elegant nowadays are merely decadent.”

For several years, Cahén designed the covers of programmes for musical performances by the International Artists organization. For the cover for 1946-47, Cahén used a modernist collage approach, mixing drawn elements with Benday dot screen and actual sheet music.

In 1946, Cahén began building his own off-the-grid home north of Toronto, furnished with new modernist Canadian furniture mixed with older pieces. He was also busy charming new clients like Maclean’s andNew Liberty. Following completion of his new home and expanded studio in 1947, Cahén was able to paint more ambitious gallery art and he began producing his most impressive illustrations. New Liberty had just been bought by Canadians and the art directors Harry W. McLeod and Keith Scott were ready to make their mark. Designers in 1947 were eager to promote Canadian talent in the interests of establishing a Canadian visual culture identifiably different from that of Americans.

In 1952, his illustration “The Most Beautiful Girl” won the medal for Editorial Illustration General. Then it went to New York, where it also won an award from the New York Art Directors Club. What made it special was its innovative collage and tracery of lines that evoked the Calder-esque mobiles so popular at the time; the unusual combination of brushstrokes in the girl’s hair with delicate washes and graphite rubbings; the conceptualization of the main character as a puppet; and the use of the rose with its metaphorical double meaning as both sweet and, in Cahén’s treatment, particularly thorny.

Besides his busy freelance work, Cahén worked hard at his personal art. His work was largely abstract, but it was not intended to be baffling to viewers or to be removed from everyday life. Rather, abstraction was just another lingo in his lexicon of visual languages for reaching out to his audience, “I paint what my…emotions dictate. I know that it is somehow a search for faith, and an escape from loneliness through communication.”

In 1953, he came together with Harold Town, Walter Yarwood, Jack Bush, Tom Hodgson, and other colleagues to form Painters Eleven. When viewed as design exercises, Cahén’s canvases are a testament to his skill as a composer and narrator; pulsating with exuberant, complex knots balanced with calm spots; each line or brushstroke emoting a life-story as it traverses the picture-plane; colours calling or whispering in a chorus of high and low notes.

Cahén’s interest in abstract painting informs illustrations such as the one of a worried woman in a brown coat, where he combined cubist line drawing with gestural brushstrokes, crayon shading, printed squares, and three flat spot colours in a very offbeat combination of yellow, brown, and pink. Ottawa’s First (and Last) Sidewalk Café, a tale of immigrant adjustment to a very uptight Canada; and Ikon for Irena, set in Siberia, display Cahén’s powers of story-telling, character design, and draftsmanship in equal parts.

Designer Carl Dair noted in Canadian Art, “one feels Canadian advertising and editorial art have advanced

measurably over the past year, that a new crop of artists is sturdy and sound and imaginative, and that we are beginning to develop Canadian styles and forms in graphic art which may be vital enough to resist the powerful influences of the advertising colossus south of the 49th parallel.” Art director Stan Furnival confirmed it was Cahén who had been largely responsible for this shift. “There isn’t any doubt that he was the greatest single force in Canadian illustration since [Charles W.] Jefferys. He radically changed a tight slick Americanized attitude almost overnight.”

In 1955 Cahén moved to Oakville, where he designed a new house. Long with simple lines, it had picture windows, a high-ceilinged studio, and a carport for his beloved sports cars. On November 26, 1956, returning home, Oscar Cahén collided with an oncoming dump truck and was killed instantly.

Except where noted otherwise, images and archival references have been provided by The Cahén Foundation and The Visual Literacy Foundation of Canada.

Jaleen Grove is Scholar-in-Residence at The Cahén Foundation, where she orchestrates research, exhibitions, and publishing. She has authored several scholarly articles, book chapters, and monographs on Canadian and American illustrators, and she has taught at Parsons The New School, Stony Brook University, and Ryerson University. She holds a BFA in studio practice; an MA in Communication and Culture; and will defend her dissertation in Art History, "A Cultural Trade: Canadian Magazine Illustration at Home and in the United States," at Stony Brook University in 2013-2014.


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