Oscar Cahén was born on February 8, 1916, in Copenhagen and arrived in Montréal from Europe on July 13, 1940 as an unwilling refugee. Yet in a few short years the vibrant and emotionally complex artist would broaden the scope of illustration and painting in Canada. Cahén died suddenly in 1956, but not before rising to be one of the nation’s most celebrated illustrators as well as a major influence on fellow abstract painters, with whom he formed the renowned artist collective Painters Eleven.
Around 1949 Cahén began exploring wholly abstract forms, establishing his personal vocabulary of crescents, spikes, ovoids, and hot, startling colour by 1952. He also explored printmaking and ceramics. His time seems to have been split fairly evenly between illustrating and painting, the former providing the financial stability and social prominence that allowed him to be as experimental as he wanted in his self-directed works.Between 1950 and 1957, Canadian magazines published at least three hundred of Cahén’s illustrations.
Abstract painting permitted self-expression in non-literal modes—but many Canadians and fellow artists did not appreciate such art. The problem of broadening Canadians’ visual horizons was a matter of concern for avant-garde and modern artists. In 1948 expatriate painter James Imlach (untraced)—a friend of Cahén, Walter Yarwood (1917–1996), and Harold Town (1924–1990)—writing from New York, urged them “to work towards a true progressive school of art in Canada and show the world what the soil of spacious freedom can do for mankind.”In 1953 the three discussed mounting an exhibition of abstract painting only, in order to show “a unity of contemporary purpose.”
Cahén brought up the group show idea, and an ensuing meeting resulted in the formation of the collective Painters Eleven. Active until 1960, Painters Eleven members were Jack Bush (1909–1997), Cahén, Hortense Gordon (1889–1961), Tom Hodgson (1924–2006), Alexandra Luke(1901–1967), Jock Macdonald (1897–1960), Ray Mead (1921–1998), Kazuo Nakamura (1926–2002), Ronald, Town, and Yarwood.
The group legitimized abstract art, inspired younger artists to follow avant-garde directions, and brought Canadian art into conversation with international contemporary art trends and critics. The work Cahén now produced was playful, bright, and lyrical; it was also bold, dark, and aggressive, reflecting the ongoing contrasts in Cahén’s life. A growing, invigorating public profile encouraged his output: Cahén’s exhibition record between 1953 and 1956 reveals that his art was on display almost constantly, while his illustrations appeared every month.
In the aftermath of Cahén’s death, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood arranged a memorial exhibition held at the Art Gallery of Toronto in March 1959, and other retrospectives have followed over the years.