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Oscar Cahén Life & Work by Jaleen Grove

The breadth of Oscar Cahén’s oeuvre was obscure until his son, Michael Cahén, inherited a collection of drawings and paintings, most of which had lain in storage for over three decades. This new accessibility has brought renewed attention to Cahén’s groundbreaking work as an illustrator and abstract painter. Cahén’s paintings are featured in many Canadian art books and can be found in museums and galleries throughout Canada. Much more is being discovered as The Cahén Archives furthers the study of Oscar Cahén’s life and work.


Key Exhibitions

Oscar Cahén first exhibited in his late teens but, aside from two known exceptions, ceased showing until 1947 as he concentrated on his illustration career. During the 1950s Cahén exhibited widely. His work has been included in major exhibitions ever since.


 Installation view of Oscar Cahén Memorial Exhibition, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1959. The Cahén Archives

1934

November 1934, Oscar Cahén, Ole Haslund’s Hus, Copenhagen.

1943

November 1943, Works by Mrs. Emme Frankenburg, Sam Borenstein and Oscar Cahén / Exhibition of Sketches, Watercolours and Illustrations by Oscar Cahén, Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).

1952

October 1952, Canadian Abstract Exhibition, Oshawa YWCA and Hart House, Toronto.

1953

October 1953, Abstracts at Home, The Robert Simpson Co., Toronto.

1953
–54

December 1953–February 1954, 2nd Bienal de São Paulo.

1954

March 1954, Canadian section at the Tenth Inter-American Conference, Caracas.

October–November 1954, Oscar Cahén, Hart House, Toronto.

1955

March–April 1955, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Jacques de Tonnancour and Paul-Émile Borduas, Elsie Perrin Williams Memorial Art Gallery, London, Ontario.

1956

April–May 1956, 20th Annual Exhibition of American Abstract Artists with “Painters Eleven” of Canada, Riverside Museum, New York.

June–July 1956, Canadian Abstract Painting, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

1958
–59

September 1958–March 1959, Painters Eleven, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; toured to Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Edmonton, Kingston, Sackville.

1959

March–April 1959, Oscar Cahén Memorial Exhibition, Art Gallery of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario).

1960

March 1960, Oscar Cahén, Paintings. André Jasmin, Serigraphs. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

1968

September–November 1968, Oscar Cahén: First American Retrospective, Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida.

1972

September–October 1972, Toronto Painting, 1953–1965, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; toured to Toronto.

1979

October–December 1979, Painters Eleven in Retrospect, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa; toured across Canada.

1983
–84

December 1983–February 1984, Oscar Cahén retrospective, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; toured to St. John’s, Windsor, Edmonton, Winnipeg.

1993

March–May 1993, The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: The 1950s, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; toured to Quebec City, Regina, Calgary, Hamilton.

2011

October 2011, Oscar Cahén: Canada’s Groundbreaking Illustrator, Illustration House, New York; toured to Calgary, Banff.


Selected Writings by the Artist


Oscar Cahén wrote poems, short stories, and music, only a few examples of which survive in The Cahén Archives. He also contributed one important essay on the status of illustration:


“Editorial Art in Canada in 1953.” Art Directors Club of Toronto Annual. Toronto: Art Directors Club of Toronto, 1954, 54.


Selected Critical Writing

Although very few scholars have accessed Oscar Cahén’s papers and oeuvre, many unverified claims have been repeated for years. Factual errors exist in some of the studies on the artist produced before this one, which will also have to be reviewed as new information comes to light. Nevertheless, previous scholarship brings invaluable perspectives to the appreciation of Oscar Cahén.


Exhibition catalogue for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s major retrospective exhibition of Cahén’s work, organized by David Burnett in 1983

Burnett, David. Oscar Cahén. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983.

Dault, Gary Michael. “Oscar Cahén: In Search of Lost Fame.” Border Crossings, no. 91 (August 2004): 58–63.


Finlay, Karen. “Identifying with Nature: Graham Sutherland and Canadian Art, 1939–1955.” Canadian Art Review 21, nos. 1–2 (1994): 43–59.


Grove, Jaleen. “Oscar Cahén: Bringing Things into the Light.” In Oscar Cahén: Canada’s Groundbreaking Illustrator. New York: Illustration House, 2011.


–––––, ed. Proceedings of the Cahén Colloquium II (2015).

Smart, Tom. Various postings on Oscar Cahén under “Research.” Smart on Art, September–December 2011. http://www.smartonart.ca/index.cfm/Research.


Spalding, Jeffrey. “Oscar Cahén, Painter Extraordinaire—Oscar, Celebrated Illustrator.” Today’s Inspiration, October 31, 2012. http://todaysinspiration.blogspot.ca/2012/10/oscar-cahen-painter-extraordinaire.html.


Key Interviews with the Artist

Buchanan, Donald W. “An Illustrator Speaks His Mind.” Canadian Art  8, no. 1 (Autumn 1950): 2–8.


Porter, McKenzie. “Volcano with a Paint Brush.” The Standard, April 7, 1951, 18–23.


Further Reading

The following sources provide excellent background to past and current appreciation of Oscar Cahén.


Arthur, Paul. “Canada: Advertising and Editorial Art.” Graphis Annual 10, no. 52 (1954): 100–101, 158, 161.


Boyanoski, Christine. The 1950s: Works on Paper. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1988.


Broad, Graham. “Painters Eleven: The Shock of the New.” The Beaver, February–March 2004, 20–26.


Cahén, Fritz Max. Men Against Hitler. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1939, 22–23.


Dair, Carl. “New Patterns in Canadian Advertising.” Canadian Art 9, no. 4 (Summer 1952): 152–55.


Oscar Cahén painting en plein air

Furnival, Stan. “Notes on Oscar Cahén.” Northward Journal: A Quarterly of the Northern Arts, nos. 18/19 (November 1980): n.p.


Hill, James. Presentation of the CAPIC Lifetime Achievement Award to Oscar Cahén (speech), March 26, 1988. In Oscar Cahén: Canada’s Groundbreaking Illustrator. New York: Illustration House, 2011.


Koch, Eric. Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder. Toronto: Methuen, 1980.


Macklem, Katherine. “Bringing Back Oscar.” Maclean’s, October 25, 2004, 59–64.


Murray, Joan. Painters Eleven in Retrospect. Oshawa: Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 1979.


. Origins of Abstraction in Ontario: The Abstracts at Home Show, 1953. Oshawa: Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 1992.


Nasgaard, Roald. Abstract Painting in Canada. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2007.


Nowell, Iris. Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010.


Reid, Dennis. Toronto Painting: 1953–1965. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1972.


Zemans, Joyce. “Making Painting Real: Abstract and Non-Objective Art in English Canada, c. 1915–1961.” In The Visual Arts in Canada, edited by Anne Whitelaw, Brian Foss, and Sandra Paikowsky, 169–76. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2010.