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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

What Are You Doing This Sunday?

Friday, September 30, 2011

If you happen to be near Stockbridge, MA, why not take in a talk about Russell Patterson by this past week's guest author, Jaleen Grove?

Patterson05

Details at the Norman Rockwell Museum website.

Oscar Cahén, Part 5: Cahén, Illustrator and Abstract Painter

By Jaleen Grove

Cahén avoided rough work in order to preserve the spontaneity of the first attempt:

"I do many sketches before starting a painting, but in my illustrations I rarely make such preliminary drawings. In fact, much to the dismay of art directors, my "roughs" are usually so sketchy that I can't make them out myself. What I do is to start my finished drawing with a hard pencil right on the board, then I ink in the final design and erase the pencil marks which made up the initial draft. Thus, by eliminating first roughs, I feel I am able to retain in the completed illustrations the full quality of the initial enthusiasm. As for media used, I mix my techniques as subject or purpose dictates…."

It is interesting that of the very few sketches that are preserved, each shows a different style and medium.

OC_28

For “A Cage for the Birdman" Cahén coated his board with thick white paint, then drew over that with black ink. There is no white paint over the black...

OC_29Maclean’s, 1954

... to make white highlights Oscar literally carved away black ink in cross-contours to reveal the white beneath, shaping the forms as a sculptor would.

OC_29.1


"A Cage for the Birdman" also affords us an opportunity to examine Oscar Cahén’s formidable mastery of the art of spot colour printing. There are only four inks—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—used to create secondary colours green, brown, purple, and orange. The fact that all four process colours were used indicates that Cahén could have submitted full colour art. Instead, he used flat spot colours to intentionally achieve a desired effect. The final illustration is not simply black and white art with some hues thrown in for fun—it is colour artwork, designed that way from the start and rendered using the ink and press as the “paint” and “brush.”

OC_29.2

Oscar Cahén developed his aesthetic repertoire through illustration in technical and iconographic ways, reflecting on the relationship between the verbal, the non-verbal, and the visual. He then switched hats and allowed that internalized knowledge to come out in a different way in abstract painting, as a member of the Toronto collective of abstract artists called Painters 11. Unlike for his illustrations, Cahén made rough drawings for his abstract paintings and reworked them over and over.

OC_30Subjective Image

OC_31Railroad Yard


Expressing non-verbal feeling in the visual was always uppermost in Cahén’s intentions as an illustrator; abstraction simply stripped away the nameable, verbal layer to leave behind that lurking pure sense. Art theorist Meyer Schapiro has said that the New York abstract expressionists didn’t care about communicating with an audience. As an expert in visual communication, Cahén differed from them in that he knew quite well that even unfamiliar symbols were not devoid of meaning, and he asserted that his paintings were “a search for faith, and an escape from loneliness through communication.”

OC_32.1New Liberty, 1949

OC_32.2We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

From oral histories and a few speeches that were luckily recorded, we know that Cahén had more influence on his peers in the graphic arts than almost any other Canadian illustrator up to at least 1960. In art director Stan Furnival’s estimation:

"There isn’t any doubt that he was the greatest single force in Canadian illustration since Jefferys. He revitalized the whole business of illustration in Canada and encouraged a lot of good people to stay here and work here. He brought an academic art training to his illustrations—which, combined with a sense of freedom and vitality, radically changed a tight slick Americanized attitude almost overnight."

OC_33We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

OC_34_Original art for a Maclean’s cover

Tom Hodgson, a Painters 11 member and friend of Oscar’s, wrote:

"Oscar Cahén was the major impact in two areas, advertising and painting... Nothing even close to his impact has happened since... for many people, Oscar was their beginning."

OC_35

* The first exhibition of Oscar Cahén’s illustration since his lifetime will be shown in New York at Illustration House in October 2011 (opening night Oct. 1). With Roger Reed, I have written a full colour catalogue with an essay and over 60 images. In this series of posts about Cahén, I will introduce him and feature some artwork that will not appear in the show, catalogue, or websites. The tearsheets and originals here are from Oscar Cahén’s estate, courtesy of his son Michael Cahén at The Cahén Archives ~ Jaleen Grove

Oscar Cahén, Part 4: Cahén Illustrates Canada

Thursday, September 29, 2011

By Jaleen Grove

With his European training and creativity, Oscar Cahén was soon able to pick his work. For 70 years Canadians had been running to New York in search of better jobs. But when he was offered a high salary of $25,000 to join an ad agency (some sources say Esquire) in New York before 1951, Cahén opted to remain in Canada with an income of $15,000, perhaps in part because he was allowed much autonomy and a closer relationship with art directors than would have been possible in New York.

OC_21Maclean's, 1948.


In the 1950s MacLean’s and other Canadian magazines ran many stories with diverse multicultural characters, more than comparable American periodicals of the day. Oscar Cahén’s European background led to his receiving commissions for these “ethnic” stories.

OC_22Chatelaine, 1954.

Genre scenes of everyday Canadian life were folksy, with characters made a little more cartoonish, cute, or hayseed than they might be in real life, perhaps based on locals Cahén befriended in rural Ontario, where he lived.

OC_23”The House the Horse Built,” 1951. We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

Depending on the tone of the story, Cahén’s native and peasant characters could be somber and dignified or jocular and quaint, but never were they insensitive (Bolsheviks aside).

OC_24Mayfair Magazine, 1953.

Cahén enlivened genre scenes by inserting descriptive detail, sometimes quite personal.

OC_25MacLean’s, 1955.

In this café scene, graffiti on the wall reads “Oscar loves Mimi” (his wife).

OC_25.1

A Standard cover depicting a mother in a country kitchen braiding her daughter’s hair before sending her off to a Girl Guides excursion is filled with telling clutter—and some of Cahén’s favorite recurring motifs: dancing butterflies, a hanging doll, and a wood burning stove.

OC_26 The Standard, 1950.

In this 1947 cover for Maclean's magazine, the town in the background is reminiscent of King, Ontario, where Oscar Cahén had a house and studio built. His signature butterflies appear, blessing the tranquility of the scene. His commentary here, however, is ironic:

Cahén54

... notice the "How to Paint" manual, and the overly Disney-esque critters. The "cute babe" is not looking at the landscape, and she is not painting it -- she's painting her face.

Cahén54.detail01

Cahén's well-known contempt for formulaic painting and the Canadian plein-air landscape tradition comes through loud and clear.

* Continued tomorrow...


* The first exhibition of Oscar Cahén’s illustration since his lifetime will be shown in New York at Illustration House in October 2011 (opening night Oct. 1). With Roger Reed, I have written a full colour catalogue with an essay and over 60 images. In this series of posts about Cahén, I will introduce him and feature some artwork that will not appear in the show, catalogue, or websites. The tearsheets and originals here are from Oscar Cahén’s estate, courtesy of his son Michael Cahén at The Cahén Archives ~ Jaleen Grove

*Also... Jaleen is giving a talk today on Robert Weaver








Oscar Cahén, Part 3: Cahén’s Versatility

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

By Jaleen Grove

In his 16 years of Canadian illustrating, there are at least 12 stylistic approaches so different that the casual observer would likely not detect only one artist behind them all, although a few of these Oscar Cahén did frequently enough to ensure some “name” recognition.

Cahén53New Liberty, 1948.

Occasionally, Oscar Cahén’s illustrations reveal innovative surprises: collaged newspaper on one story...

Cahén45

... in the mailbox of a MacLean’s cover...

Cahén46

... a fragment of an actual postage stamp on the mail.

Cahén47

One of Cahén’s biggest breakthroughs was when he illustrated an entire book in a week, Morley Callaghan’s "Man With A Coat" for MacLean’s, April 16, 1955. It was a rush job; the magazine put him in a hotel room with art supplies and he set to it. While many of the illustrations are in his usual loose inked line and watercolour, two stand out. In the title page, flat planes of colour and pattern on separate papers are glued together (the pink segment corrects a weaker rendition beneath) to suggest architecture and relationships of light and shadow using the barest essentials only.

Cahén48MacLean’s, 1955.

The latter exploits transparent wet into wet over flat hot colour, the figure almost lost in shadow. In these two illustrations we can see Cahén’s interest in abstract art coming out in the formalist play of figure and ground and flatness.

Cahén49Maclean’s, 1955.

The variety of work Cahén took on was partly due to the small scale of the illustration market in Canada. In order to thrive, Canadians had to take all manner of work, from cartooning to fiction illustration to advertising. But the danger was that if a few illustrators kept appearing again and again in a limited number of publications, reader stagnation might set in. Cahén’s relentless switching of styles had the happy side effect that he could qualify for any job and never get boring.

Cahén50New Liberty Magazine, 1948.

In the later 1940s cultural leaders were patriotically itching to differentiate Canadian visual culture from that of Americans, so Cahén was able to submit a lot of off-beat work. Canadian art directors were open to unconventional approaches to drawing people, unlike the more conservative mainstream American periodicals—and the public. A reader of New Liberty wrote:

"Sir: Do you keep your illustrator Oscar in a padded cell? No one in their right mind could think up such repulsive and hideous things to represent human beings."

Cahén51New Liberty, issue unknown.

Art Director Stan Furnival said about the first boy-girl art Cahén submitted, ”I’ll always remember that art as it came in, wrong proportions, but alive and delightful … its inclusion certainly helped give the whole magazine a more interesting quality.” MacLean’s art director Gene Aliman remarked, “The ideally beautiful heroine and the ever handsome hero seldom exist in reality. The illustrator betrays the writer's artistry and the reader's intelligence by using stock, anonymous looking characters.” Oscar himself said:

"I do not believe that the average magazine reader is as inaccessible to fundamental emotions as expressed in good art as art directors would like me to believe. Mind you, I get a bang out of drawing cute babes! It's a lark!"

Cahén52New Liberty, 1948.

Oscar Cahén enjoyed trying out every kind of style and medium partly because he valued, above all, avoiding formulaic approaches and ruts. He disapproved of the Famous Artists School—he felt it encouraged mindless simplification and repetition of techniques pioneered by innovators such as Norman Rockwell, Al Parker, Ben Shahn and other notables, hampering creative evolution in the field. He also denigrated what he called “American junk” and “commercial junk." But he told an interviewer from Canadian Art magazine:

"Much of the material we are asked to illustrate is of inferior quality. Yet, good art work can be used with it and by itself will do much to raise the standard of the publication in question and stimulate the minds of its more alert readers. Commercial artists need to take more time to reflect upon this power which is at their command."

* Continued tomorrow...


* The first exhibition of Oscar Cahén’s illustration since his lifetime will be shown in New York at Illustration House in October 2011 (opening night Oct. 1). With Roger Reed, I have written a full colour catalogue with an essay and over 60 images. In this series of posts about Cahén, I will introduce him and feature some artwork that will not appear in the show, catalogue, or websites. The tearsheets and originals here are from Oscar Cahén’s estate, courtesy of his son Michael Cahén at The Cahén Archives ~ Jaleen Grove

Oscar Cahén, Part 2: Cahén and the War

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


By Jaleen Grove

When Cahén began illustrating in Canada in 1941, conditions favoured innovation because not only was the Second World War upsetting norms and creating new opportunities in poster design, animation and other communication arts, it was giving Canada a new sense of itself as a nation, rather than as a British colony.

Cahén34
We don’t know where either of these images appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

Cahén35

One of Cahén’s first art directors, Ben Turner of the Standard, gave Cahén many depressing subjects. Crayoned staring figures appear in a series by Cahén soliciting aid for Greece, dated 1943. Cahén executed these after his release from Sherbrooke internment camp in 1943, while in the employ of Rapid, Grip and Batten. This long-time art studio in Toronto is best known for having employed Canada’s Group of Seven members some twenty-five years earlier

Cahén36 
In his scrapbook of samples, under some caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Heinrich Himmler, Cahén penciled the words, “Based on Szik [sic].”

Cahén37We don’t know where these images appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

Arthur Szyk was a Jewish American whose highly polished caricatures of the enemy were frequently seen on the cover of Colliers magazine. Szyk’s influence on Cahén also came out in a later illustration that reflects the bias of the Cold War years against Russians: “The Bolshevik and the Wicked Witch,” of slovenly Communists carousing. The orange and brown palette is very similar to Szyk’s and quite unlike most of Cahén’s other colour work, while the caricatured features, fine if loosely rendered detail, and reference to a medieval banquet depicted flatly with a lack of perspective has an affinity to Szyk’s predilection for illuminated manuscripts and rapier graphic wit.

Cahén38

In another approach Cahén developed for war subjects, scenes and figures are described with a calligraphic use of brush and ink that owes something to Rico Lebrun and Milton Caniff (both of whom he admired), a technique that recurs throughout his advertising and painting careers. Particularly impressive was a series for John Hersey’s famous book Hiroshima.

Cahén39

In a relief drive ad for China captioned “Objective $1,000,000 Objectif,” an important motif for Cahén appears: a broken tree. The tree trunk shattered by the violence of war was a common sight in war-torn Europe.

Cahén40
We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

The broken tree recurs throughout Cahén’s later illustrations and fine art work, in connection with violence and tragedy.

Cahén41Cahén44

* Continued tomorrow...

* The first exhibition of Oscar Cahén’s illustration since his lifetime will be shown in New York at Illustration House in October 2011 (opening night Oct. 1). With Roger Reed, I have written a full colour catalogue with an essay and over 60 images. In this series of posts about Cahén, I will introduce him and feature some artwork that will not appear in the show, catalogue, or websites. The tearsheets and originals here are from Oscar Cahén’s estate, courtesy of his son Michael Cahén at The CahénArchives ~ Jaleen Grove

Oscar Cahén, Part 1: The Greatest Single Force

Monday, September 26, 2011


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.

  Cahén33Fiction 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 since his lifetime will be shown in New York at Illustration House in October 2011 (opening night Oct. 1). With Roger Reed, I have written a full colour catalogue with an essay and over 60 images. In this series of posts about Cahén, I will introduce him and feature some artwork that will not appear in the show, catalogue, or websites. The tearsheets and originals here are from Oscar Cahén’s estate, courtesy of his son Michael Cahén at The Cahén Archives.

Cahén31 Fiction illustration for “Hayaqwus and the Cross,” The Standard


Oscar Cahén had already completed a mature body of work as an illustrator, and had established a national reputation as an abstract painter as well. His Canadian work kept him so busy he never had time to pursue contracts in the United States, but if he had, we might have been discussing him in the same breath as Harry Beckhoff, Al Parker, David Stone Martin, Saul Steinberg, Robert Weaver, or Bob Peak. Each of these illustrators were very different from one another, but Cahén managed to cover the entire range they represent from cartoon to boy-girl to line drawing to robust painterliness to conceptual illustration to abstraction. If his annual harvests of awards from the Art Directors Club of Toronto are any indication, his peers thought he did it all superbly.

Cahén32 Award winning fiction illustration for Maclean’s.

Cahén30 We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.


Oscar Cahén’s life was dramatic from start to finish. Falsifying his birth certificate, at 14 (1930) he entered the Dresden Kunstakademie, a venerable institution whose alumni included dadaist Kurt Schwitters and caricaturist-painter Georg Grosz. He was practicing professionally by 18. In 1934, Cahén showed 79 works of advertising illustration, landscapes, and portraits in Prague and in Copenhagen. Youthful Cahén declared Surrealism “contains a lot of good things” and that the purpose of art was “bringing things into the light.”

Cahén29 We don’t know where this image appeared. If you do, contact The Cahén Archives.

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.

Untitled 
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!).


In an essay printed in the 1954 Annual of the Art Directors Club of Toronto, Cahén said:

"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."

Cahén27
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.


* Continued tomorrow...







Children's Books by Famous Illustrators: Tom Vroman

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thomas Vroman was an illustrator and graphic designer whose work began appearing in major publications in the mid-1950s.

  Vroman photo.jpg

In 1956, Collier's magazine published a spectacular series of historical illustrations by Vroman...
  Vroman02.jpg
 ... done in his highly attractive, highly decorative, signature style.

  Vroman01.spread

 Vroman's inventive, forward-looking style was not necessarily appreciated by all of Collier's readers.

  Vroman.letter.jpg

 During the 1960s Tom Vroman illustrated several children's books.

  Vroman19
(I managed to locate these images on amazon.com but there may have been others)

 Vroman's best known children's book might be Alexander...

  Vroman18Vroman17

 ... the story of a mischievous (imaginary) horse.

  Vroman16

Vroman15 Vroman14

Vroman13

Vroman12

Vroman09

Vroman10 Vroman08 Vroman07

As a kid growing up in the late '60s and early '70s, I often wondered (and still do today as a professional character designer of cartoon mascots) if Vroman's Alexander was the inspiration for the mascot character on Fruit Stripe Gum.

  Vroman06

Thomas Vroman went on to launch a successful graphic design firm which still exists today. There is an extensive biography of the artist and some examples of his later artwork at vromandesign.com

 * More of the artist's Collier's illustrations in my Thomas Vroman Flickr set.
 

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