Friday, April 27, 2007

Oscar Cahén, Fine Artist

In the late 80's, actor Peter Ustinov described Toronto as "New York run by the Swiss". In the early 50's you might have said Toronto was like Newark run by the British. Torontonians worked hard, wore dark suits and could not buy tobacco on Sundays. It was a town that rolled up the sidewalks at dusk and liked it that way.

Into this unlikely environment came a maverick artist and his gang of unruly compatriots.

The last notable movement in Canadian art had been the international success of The Group of Seven and the culture had been stuck in a rut of artistic tradionalism ever since. According to artist Graham Coughtry, “every damn tree in the country has been painted.”

In 1953, Oscar Cahén...

...along with Jack Bush...

...Harold Town...

..and several others decided to form a new collective, Painters Eleven, in an effort to give the Toronto art scene a “blood transfusion”.

In Robert Fulford's introduction to Magnificent Decade: The Art of Harold Town, 1955-1965, the author writes of Oscar Cahén, "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."

When we juxtapose one of Cahén's abstracts against one of his illustrations from around the same period, it is not very difficult to see the same playful inventiveness at work. Cahén's artwork must have had a powerfully energizing effect on all who it touched in those otherwise dreary times.

On November 26th, 1956, Oscar Cahén was killed in a car crash near his home in Oakville. He was 40 years old.

In 1968, Karl Nickel, writing for The Ringling Museum of Art's exhibit,Oscar Cahén: First American Retrospective Exhibition, said "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... gives a sense not only of great and lasting achievement, but also of tragically unfulfilled promise."

And the famous Canadian illustrator, James Hill, said, "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."

Most of the information and some of this week's images are from The Cahén Archives. Please visit the site for more artwork, photos and information about this great Canadian artist.

All of this week's images and information are © The Cahén Archives.


  1. Just catching up with your latest ... holy christ! I'm so impressed and blown away. This guy's stylistic and technical range is insane! Some of those Maclean's covers have a nearly "belgian clean line" look to them. Stuff like that always gives me a heart attack.

    Its both inspiring and frustrating to see work like this. Inspiring because, well, its inspiring. Frustrating, though on two counts: one, the reminder of how much great shit there is out there that I have no idea about and need to educate myself on, two: arghhh! I've spent half my life in a career that's eaten up all my time for developing my own drawing. Sucks.

    But I loved the illustrations for Winter Dreams (I'm a literature professor, how could I not) and I intend to plug away at my own exercises and self-imposed discipline of two face sketchs a day on my train commute. Maybe I'll make a flikr gallery of my own soon.

    Keep up the good work, Leif and I haven't forgotten my promise to send you some scans of 50's/60's era textbook and children's book illustrations the next time I'm home.

    Just three more weeks. And then....8 glorious months of sabbatical.

  2. Thanks, as always, Prof. E, for your comment. Your exuberance and enthusiasm is a tonic! I look forward to seeing your efforts on Flickr. :-)

  3. Many, many thanks to you, Leif, and the Cahén Archives for making these informative and inspiring posts possible. His work is astounding.