An excellent book by Jaleen Grove about the painter Oscar Cahén has just appeared. Cahén was the much admired co-founder of Painters Eleven, the influential group of Toronto artists in the 1950s who helped introduce abstract painting of a kind then popular in New York into the mainstream of Canadian art. Cahén died in a collision on the Queen Elizabeth Highway in 1956 at the age of forty.
One of the many charms of this book is that you can read it for nothing on the website of the Canadian Online Art Book Project.
Though a refugee from Nazi Germany, like me he was interned in England in May 1940 with many other “enemy aliens” – we still had German nationality – and shipped to Canada. There we remained interned. Oscar was not released until October 1942; I, a little earlier. In the camps, I was often entertained by his witty conversation and amused by his ingenious drawings. In exchange for his titillating pictures of half-naked girls, the venerable guards outside the barbed wire, some of them veterans of WWI, often procured cigarettes for him.
Once released, Cahén quickly became am immensely successful commercial artist. Jaleen Grove writes: “Between 1950 and 1957, Canadian magazines published at least three hundred of Cahén’s illustrations. His rendering for “The Most Beautiful Girl I’ve Ever Known” won the 1952 medal for Editorial Illustration from the Art Directors Club of Toronto; it was then exhibited by the Art Directors Club of New York, alongside Norman Rockwell.”
In his formative years in Europe, Cahén had been profoundly influenced by German Expressionism and Surrealism. In the early ’fifties he gradually became interested in abstraction. This brought him into contact with Harold Town and others who then began exhibiting together and formed Painters Eleven.
Many old admirers like me were puzzled by this unexpected transformation. We had not recognized the seriousness lurking beneath the surface of his sparkling personality.
For all we knew, in 17th century Amsterdam, Rembrandt may also have been the life of the party.