By Jaleen Grove
It’s not every day that a Canadian illustrator gets a solo show in New York. Especially a deceased one that few know about.
Fiction illustration for “A Cage for the Bird Man,” Maclean’s, 1954.
“There isn’t any doubt that Oscar Cahén was the greatest single force in Canadian illustration since [Charles W] Jefferys.”
In 1959, these were the words of Stan Furnival, art director at Maclean’s Magazine. He published some of Oscar Cahén’s best illustration, until Cahén’s untimely death at age 40 in 1956. The first exhibition of Oscar Cahén’s illustration
In 1940 he came to Canada from Europe at age 24, as a prisoner of war. His father Fritz Max Cahén was a Jewish political journalist and ex-diplomat who was organizing resistance against the Nazis, but when Oscar fled to England, he was held because he had German citizenship. He was subsequently interned near Sherbrooke, Quebec, and he began his Canadian illustration career while still behind barbed wire, completing assignments for Montreal’s The Standard.
Oscar Cahén was to Canadian illustration what the similarly outspoken Robert Weaver was to American illustration, unapologetic about being an illustrator and critical of illustration at the same time (except he didn’t make enemies, as Weaver did!).
"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."
New Liberty, 1949.
Cahén also iterated what he felt was of merit in illustration: “a degree of individuality,” something “transmitting emotions beyond the representational value therein” in order to influence the viewer, “emotional and story-telling values,” and the use of “what is called ‘Fine Art’” where appropriate. Oscar Cahén indisputably lived up to his own advice.