“Never is it easy to explain the complexities that nurture the sudden emergence of an art movement which breaks abruptly with the restrictive pressures of its past. However, there is no question whatsoever that Oscar Cahén had a notably significant impact upon the development of the young men who were to group together as Painters Eleven. He was, after all, a worldly experienced man whose technical facility as an artist was surpassed, if possible, by his vitality as a companion. For a young Canadian dealing with the conflict of breaking with the literal representational traditions of his immediate past, Oscar Cahén’s agility in moving back and forth between literal drawings and bold abstract paintings must have been a consolation as well as an example.
Who could doubt the strength of his abstract compositions in which form and space were dealt with in new terms even as colour was handled with a flamboyance that must have almost seemed, at times, a joyful scandal. This new Canadian indeed made a great contribution to his new home.
… no-one can deny that, the art historical fact of the importance of his influence being put aside, Oscar Cahén was essentially a splendid imaginative figure”.
Dr. Evan H. Turner
Director, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1968
"If any one man can be given credit for the vitality of Toronto art in the 1950's, the man is Oscar Cahén. He died in 1956 and his contribution to local art is now being recognized by a memorial exhibition of his work. Forty-three works - oil paintings, watercolours and graphics - are displayed at the Art Gallery of Toronto as part of the Ontario Society of Artists show.
Cahén was born in 1916. He came to Canada in the early 1940's, and by about 1950 he had become a major influence among artists in Toronto. Few painters anywhere have reached the front rank of commercial illustration and gallery art simultaneously, but Cahén accomplished this and a great deal more.
Because he was a European, because he was a few years older, and because he was so brilliantly original, Cahén was able to inspire and guide a number of talented younger artists. He was one of the driving spirits behind the group called Painters 11, and today such painters as Tom Hodgson, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood still show his influence.
The paintings in the memorial exhibition demonstrate the quality that must have appealed most to his followers - a relentless emphatic vigor. His talent was a searching, restless one, and his paintings are largely the results of this searching. They reflect magnificently the richness and variety of the life he saw around him.
Perhaps the only thing the exhibition lacks is some reference to Cahén's mural in the cafeteria of the Imperial Oil building on St. Clair Ave. This work, almost his last, seems to me the best example of wall painting in Toronto. It reflects Cahén at his most characteristic - gay, robust, defiantly optimistic; a most appropriate monument.
Surprisingly, the mural and the paintings at the art gallery have a definite North American flavor. As Harold Town writes in an eloquent catalog note "He embraced the swirl and change, the harshness and pace of his new life, with no gregrets for the Europe that he knew so well ..." Cahén was able to give Canada a great deal, but - as his paintings demonstrate - he was also able to take a great deal from it.
Robert Fulford, World of Art, Toronto Daily Star, Saturday April 4 1959
"Tribute to Cahén"
“…a parallel can be drawn between the way the careers of Cahén and Tom Thomson have been understood.
…At his death in 1917 Thomson was just a month short of turning forty; Cahén, who was born in 1916, was forty when he died. Both men died tragically and violently. Their careers as mature painters were limited to about eight years, and both men established careers as commercial artists before developing as painters. Like Thomson, Cahén became part of a small group of artists whose initiative and drive – to say nothing of their opposition to the status quo – was to have a profound effect on the form and character of art in Canada in subsequent decades. The reputations of Cahén and Thomson are based on the intrinsic quality of their work, but are heightened by the roles both artists played in the early revolutionary activities of their artistic circles…
…To carry the comparison with Tom Thomson one point further, the context in which Thomson’s work existed was, in contrast to Cahén’s, of much longer duration. The Group of Seven and their successors in the Canadian Group of Painters so firmly entrenched their approach to painting that it gave continuing validity to Thomson’s contribution, allowing it to appear contemporary many years after his death. Cahén, however, was working at the beginning of a period of radical expansion and rapid change in Canadian art, a period marked by continual shifting in both the conceptual and stylistic bases of art. He was part of a movement concerned with the ongoing movement of change”.
Dr. David Burnett
Oscar Cahén. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983
“Cahén’s brilliant success as a graphic artist with the Montreal Standard and later with Maclean's Magazine started a revolution in commercial illustration in Canada which has had wide significance.
As a catalyst, Cahén played his greatest personal role. His freshness and freedom, his sophistication, his feeling for speed and change, his financial success, and above all his high professional integrity, had a stunning impact on the young artists of drab, post-war Toronto. To the force of his personality can be traced directly much of the dynamism and vitality which is the hallmark of so much Toronto painting. It is fitting, therefore, that the Academy honour Oscar Cahén through the awarding of the 1975 RCA Medal”.
Ann H.J. Nelles, Executive Director
Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, 1975
“Cahén’s highly individual, strangely compelling magazine work, brought him into such demand that once he would have had to draw 48 hours a day to keep up with all the commissions from The Standard, Maclean's Magazine, Canadian Home Journal, National Home Monthly, New Liberty and other periodicals.
… In an unprecedented reversal of editorial procedure, Cahén’s drawings were sent to fiction authors who were inspired to write stories around them”.
Volcano with a Paint Brush
The Standard, 1951
“Since his premature death in 1956, Oscar Cahén has been widely acclaimed in Canada as the man who did more than any other to bring contemporary art in Ontario alive in the 1950's.
His extraordinarily competent and original work in illustration won him immediate recognition.In many ways, Oscar Cahén strikes a parallel to America’s own David Smith both in his passionate vital approach to art and to life, and in his violent death in an automobile crash.
The lives and the art of both men present a similar phenomenon of explosive energy, of force and impatience. …Cahén’s art, like David Smith’s, is never weak or tentative…
Such men speak clearly for their times, hurrying, even speeding through life and through brilliant accomplishments to an early and violent death. Any exhibition of Cahén’s work, as of Smith’s, gives a sense not only of great and lasting achievement, but also of tragically unfulfilled promise.
… Canada did not come artistically into its own until after World War II. Both the United States and Canada benefited enormously by the influx of so much talent and ability from a troubled Europe. Through such men as Oscar Cahén, Canada has begun to arrive at a high sophistication and to share in a great North American cultural renaissance”.
Oscar Cahén: First American Retrospective Exhibition, Sarasota, Florida: The
Ringling Museum of Art, 1968
“…I took the plunge and decided to run the entire novel in a single issue, complete with a special cover and nine pages of 4 colour illustrations.
The only artist fast enough and competent enough to do it all in a week was Oscar Cahén, whose lively covers for Maclean's were as well known as his serious gallery work. We locked Oscar up in a hotel, and in one astonishing painting frenzy he produced a brilliant series of illustrations”.
My Times: Living with History 1947-1995. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1995
“Cahén was a complete artist when he arrived in Montreal after the Second World War. He was accomplished, dedicated and original with a training and background few Canadian artists could equal.During most of the Group’s existence, from 1953 to 1959, its dominant figures, both as artists and influences, were Oscar Cahén and Jock Macdonald. Oscar Cahén’s arrival in Toronto in 1952 was a pivotal event in the city’s art history. His formidable talents startled Toronto artists into a new look at their own painting. His impact on his younger colleagues in the Painters Eleven is difficult to exaggerate, and is frankly confessed by most of them”.
Four Decades: The Canadian Group of Painters and Their Contemporaries 1930 – 1970
Toronto/Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd. 1972
“Had he lived, Oscar Cahén might be remembered as the greatest of all Canadian artists. A gifted illustrator, he also produced some of the group’s most profound works, remarkable for their freedom of movement and striking colours. He remained the artistic center of gravity in Painters Eleven even after his death in a car accident in 1956”.
Graham Broad The Beaver Vol 84:1, p.21 Feb/Mar 2004
“These are vigorous hard hitting abstract paintings with few clichés in them. In each one is a search, a discovery, a new and genuine way with colour, space and feeling.
Cahén obviously derived his rich and real qualities from sources which were close to him. In an untitled painting, he used his studio as a source of reference and used colour and perspective to indicate the space at the back, middle and foreground, and he did it with the greatest sensitive awareness of the exact meaning of colour in space.
What a rich harmony of green, orange, pink and purple he creates, reinforced by black structural lines, and in Growing Form the image is derived from a living black tree as it pushes it’s energy and fingers out a hot red background.
Many of these paintings show Cahén in the traditional phase between representational and abstract painting. That moment, a bitter struggle is real and each painting is a battleground, when his discoveries come quickly and are fresh, when every brush stroke is a new revelation and experience. These are tense tightly strung paintings with vigorous black lines and highly volatile shapes against the resolved colour ideas.
Cahén was a major talent full of independent feeling and awareness of the meaning of colour and space, form and tension. His was a passionate conviction combined with a sensitivity. His brushstrokes were violent thrusts, but his colour disagreed - they were harmonious.
Cahén sought to reproduce life in his work with youthful vigour”.
By A.A. Pincus
Sights and Sounds
Oscar Cahén Memorial Exhibition, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
CBC Radio, 1960
“Oscar Cahén…the leading magazine illustrator in Canada and helped change the stance of fine art in Canada from backward-looking formalism to forward-looking experimentalism”.
“Great Canadian Painting: A Century of Art" Weekend Magazine, 1966
“We can only deeply regret the incalculable loss of this splendid talent in the richness of its prime, and note that what he has left us would seem enough for any man”.
Oscar Cahén Memorial Exhibition and 87th Annual Spring Exhibition
Ontario Society of Artists; Art Gallery of Toronto, 1959
“…In 1956, an automobile accident killed Oscar Cahén and fundamentally changed both Painters Eleven and Harold Town's own artistic environment. Cahén, the only European, was a unique figure in this group, more experienced, more sophisticated, and more audacious than most of the others. He was born in Denmark in 1916, and in his early twenties was a teacher in Prague, then a refugee from the Nazi occupation. Like many Jews, he was at first interned as an enemy alien by an obtuse Canadian government; contacts in the art world finally rescued him, and he went to work as a commercial artist, first in Montreal and then in Toronto. In the 1940s he developed as an expressionist painter, producing dark and ominous pictures. But by the time Painters Eleven formed, Cahén--now thirty-seven years old--had turned to abstractions in brilliant and unexpected colours. It was this startling palette that set him apart from his ten colleagues, and indeed from all painters in Canada. He had learned how to place one colour beside another in a way that produced unusual intensities. This discovery had a great influence on several of the Eleven, above all on Tom Hodgson and Town. In a sense, Town inherited Cahén's edgy, acid colour sense. For the rest of his life, Town's colours would always be unpredictable. It was as if he had unconsciously made his painting career into a permanent homage to his dead friend”.
Robert Fulford's introduction to Magnificent Decade: The Art of Harold Town, 1955-1965
(The Moore Gallery, Toronto, October, 1997)
Copyright © Robert Fulford
“… Those with no chance to know him are to be pitied. In the galleries we knew him as a gifted abstractionist with something worth saying and sense of color and form to express it. Then would come the day at a fairly run-of-the-mill commercial exhibition where among magazine illustrations, we would see one piece that had distinction even though it was popular boy-and-girl realism – and find the artist was Oscar Cahén. He could dignify anything by doing it well…”
Pearl McCarthy, At the Galleries, Globe & Mail, 18th May 1963
“… I think the artists of B.C. would share my sentiments by saying we have all benefited tremendously by his contribution to Canadian art.
Some did not always agree on his departure in painting, but he taught us to re-examine ourselves - and thinking, find a minds-eye - and through this his boundless imagination and resourcefulness has rubbed off on us young painters.”
Dec 4 ‘56
“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
I WISH I’d known Oscar Cahén.
I remember seeing a small brown and black abstraction of his at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery when it was upstairs in the Holt-Renfrew building on Bloor Street in Toronto. I used to come over from Hamilton on Saturdays to look at art. This was in the early 1960s.
I didn’t know what I wanted from painting, but I loved the feeling I got, standing with what was perhaps absurd reverence before certain abstract paintings like this tiny Cahén, of some indefinable permission coming from the painting itself that it was alright to be ecstatic, that some unknowable, inchoate mix of colour, form and texture could galvanize the visceral imagination. I was a high school teacher then, just out of university. I didn’t know anything about painting, but I knew from the clutching in my stomach and the tightening in my chest that this little brown-black picture was the real thing – even though I had no idea what that actually meant.
I was young and I was endlessly capable of euphoria.
Looking back on Cahén’s work now, I can see it was perhaps too reliant on that insidious vocabulary of painted hooks and points, those little decorative pricks which seemed to emerge, like thorns on a rose stem, from the picture’s structural elements – and that everywhere dogged abstract paintings of the 1950s It was an international phenomenon. In Canadian painting, you could see it in Jack Shadbolt, Dennis Burton, Graham Coughtry, Otto Rogers, early Michael Snow, Tony Urquhart and many others, and there was a lot of it in work by the Painters Eleven artists – in Harold Town, William Ronald, Walter Yarwood and Tom Hodgson in particular. It was a mannerism, part of an arsenal of painterly ploys. Unfortunately, it located a painting in the terrain of a particular style (or, more accurately, the style of a style) and locked it there.
I never knew what this calligraphic hooking was really about. I finally decided it was some more or less subliminal desire, on the painter’s part, to snag the eye and slow it down. It always reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s silly little poem in Power Politics about lovers who fit together like a hook and eye – a fishhook and an eyeball. Haha.
Still, I loved this somber little Cahén with a passion. An admittedly irrational passion. You wonder what he would have made, and in what manner, if he’d lived longer.
Gary Michael Dault, A Reminiscence
Painters Eleven Show Catalogue:
Thames Art Gallery ● The Frederick Horsman Varley Art Gallery of Markham, 2002
Memorial Gallery is showing an unusually fine collection of paintings. They are the work of Oscar Cahén, and the exhibition runs until June 3.
And who is Oscar Cahén? An understandable question because this artist died in a car crash in 1956, that is, nearly 30 years ago, and when this happened, he had been in Canada for only 16 years, several of which were spent in an internment camp.
The pictures in the exhibition are recognizably European in character. In view of his personal story, that isn’t surprising. He was born in 1916 in Denmark, but he wasn’t a Dane; his parents were German, and as a family they were always on the move, traveling from one country to another.
With the result that Cahén studied art in no less than four different cities – Dresden, Paris, Stockholm and Prague. He taught for a short time at the Rotter School of Art in Prague in 1938, but the political situation soon forced him and his mother to flee the country – his fiercely anti-Nazi father was already in the U.S. – and they both escaped to England.
So one more country was added to the list. Once there, he began a career as an illustrator, but the outbreak of the Second World War put a stop to it, and being technically an “enemy alien”, he was interned under the wartime emergency measures. In 1940 many of the internees were sent to Canada or Australia and Oscar Cahén ended up in a camp in Sherbrooke, Que.
He was eventually allowed “out” in 1943, to continue his career as an illustrator in Montreal and Toronto. But his intention was to become a painter, and one of his pictures was accepted for the annual spring show of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1947. From then on he became a regular exhibitor.
When looking at the pictures in this exhibition, it is impossible to realize what the greater part of Canadian painting looked like in the 1940s and 1950s. The older artists were still involved with 19th century academicism, while most of the rest were under the influence of the Group of Seven.
Some of the younger painters were breaking away, and 1953 proved to be an unexpectedly decisive year. William Ronald organized an exhibition called Abstracts at Home, in which paintings by Oscar Cahén, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, Alexandra Luke, Tom Hodgson, Jack Bush and Ronald himself, were shown in ordinary domestic surroundings – hence the title.
Later, four others – Jock MacDonald, Hortense Gordon, Walter Yarwood and Harold Town – joined the group to become Painters Eleven. Their aims were to upset the status quo of the existing institutions and let in the 20th century. That is a situation that repeats itself in country after country during the last 60 years, and if they were to succeed in their objectives, the break-away artists had to organize their own exhibitions, so that the public judge for themselves.
Because of his cosmopolitan background, Oscar Cahén had a strong influence on the new group, but only for three years as he was killed in 1956. Most of the pictures in the Memorial Gallery come from the artist’s estate; unfortunately two thirds of them are undated, so that it is difficult to fit trends or experiments in the painter’s own development time a time-scale. However, Cahén’s amazing versatility and fertility cut across the problem and present us with a stunning display of artworks.
One gets the impression that his first paintings were gloomy, even despondent. His Praying Family is distorted to the point of unacceptability, yet it has an almost hypnotic interest and beauty that takes some explaining. Similarly, his coloring is often deliberately dulled in the early pictures, and flamboyantly brilliant in later ones, but the darkness and brightness seem to be interchangeable and no indication of date after all.
Apparently the artist went through a phase when he concentrated on religious subjects. The only one in the exhibition is a powerful crayon-on-paperboard portrait of Herod, which has a stained glass quality to it. Once free of those subjects, he erupted into abstraction and found a personal freedom there.
The canvasses increase in size, the brushwork is wider and coarser, and the colors vivid. His Structure is a fine example of the combining of these elements, as is Growing Amethyst, with its echoes of Alfred Pellan. He liked mixing linear complexity and brilliant coloration, which is particularly noticeable in Austin Healey 100 Engine (the artist had a fatal passion for sports cars).
Most of the oil paintings are grouped in one gallery so that we can see how he exploded out of somber coloration into a completely free diversity of colors. The colors themselves are worth studying because he made some highly idiosyncratic choices; at times I wondered how on earth he had discovered them.
The other gallery has mostly paper and paperboard works on the walls, mainly in ink or watercolor or a combination. Having been trained in art schools before the war, and having worked as an illustrator for many years, he knew all about the quality of line. And he could draw. That doesn’t mean he is tight or meticulous. Quite the reverse; when he wants to Oscar Cahén lets loose what can only be described as linear tangles.
Two untitled pictures dating from 1956, which must have been some of the last things he did, show his ability to use lines (there are plenty of them in Austin Healey 100 Engine as well). Against dark neutral backgrounds, he swirls complicated linear patterns into abstract confusions. Though there is some color, it is secondary to the intensity and vibration of his movement.
The present retrospective exhibition makes it clear that Oscar Cahén was an artist of considerable stature. At the time of his death he was only 40 year of age, and artistically speaking he was still expanding his horizons and exploring the possibilities of his talent. Most of the pictures are at least 20 years, and some must be 40 years old, yet they retain both their dynamism and their splendor…
Fine collection of paintings at Memorial
art by Philip Hicks
Page 36, The Evening Telegram, Saturday May 19, 1984