Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Oscar Cahén, Painter Extraordinaire - Oscar, Celebrated Illustrator

By guest author, Jeffrey Spalding C.M., R.C.A Artistic Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary

The passage of time does much to alter our perceptions. Art history holds a place of great distinction for the work of Oscar Cahén as a painter. His dazzling colour and inventive compositions earned him the admiration of his contemporaries.


His erudite European training prepared him to be a role model and leading figure in the band of abstract artists that would coalesce to form the renowned group Painters Eleven.


There is still much work to be done before we will fully appreciate the extent of the influence and impact his work exerted upon the appearance of abstract art in Canada in the 1950s and subsequent generations. Nonetheless, his place within our art history is now acknowledged and well-known as an artist of exemplary singular talent, represented in our important public museum collections.

Yet at the time of his tragic death in 1956 at age 40, the star of Oscar Cahén, painter extraordinaire, might have been eclipsed in the public eye by Oscar, the renowned celebrated illustrator.


From the time of his release in 1942 from World War II internment camp at Sherbrooke, Quebec, the rise of Oscar, preeminent magazine illustrator, continued ascendant.


His prodigious output adorned the pages of countless publications;


... his witty stylistic flair earned him the chance to create a succession of magazine covers.


Illustrations by Oscar were no mere accoutrement to printed text; Oscar was a genuine celebrity with a devoted public following who eagerly awaited the publication of his next creations.


Oscar’s images encompassed a broad range of moods and human emotions.


Works from the war addressed serious issues, post war lament and tenderness, to the frivolous gaiety of celebrating festive holidays. Canada came of age, chronicled by Oscar’s depictions of the era.


They contribute immensely to the picture we hold of Canada at mid-century, a place in transition from the traditions born of the British Dominion...


... to a dynamic young nation evolving cosmopolitan airs of urban sophistication.


Much of this vision is attributable to Oscar’s illustration art.


The Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary is honoured to have the opportunity to host the Canadian premiere solo exhibition of the illustration work of Oscar Cahén and thereby re-introduce us once again to ourselves: Canada of the 1940s and 1950s.


  1. Modern Art at its best!
    I see Lyonel Feininger here, depicted in the Macleans cover. And there are Miro and Rouault and Calder and the cubists incorporated in the last two pictures I would say.

    Hard to decide on any favorite design here, they are all so great; but I'm inlined to like the man on the power pole most. Also love the baker among those countless sweets (what a fine coloring), in contrast munching that salty hot dog, while a bypassing shoe depicted the small window illustrates the bakery's location in some cellar room.

  2. WOW! What a director of ACTION!! and feeling; purest Hollywood... It's the big group scenes that most amaze me; every inch rewards, every bit player is a complete story, and the whole comes out like the bang from a gun; masterful. And then there's that perfect, spare and seductive line, the ankle, the eyebrow, the tossed shoe dripping with desire...
    Thank you!

  3. His work never fails to amaze me!