Thursday, March 01, 2018

Artist Oscar Cahén's sketches of Montreal nightclubs just one sliver of a Canadian legacy - now honoured in a new book

   These outstanding illustrations taken from a 1956 article in Weekend Magazine depict the liveliness of Montreal's 1950s nightclub culture (a subject pain-and-pleasure-stakingly detailed in Montreal 375 Tales)
   Oscar Cahén (1916-56) is still celebrated for his massive contributions to Canadian art and his Montreal times come thanks to a connection to Coolopolis, as Colin Gravenor (1910-1993) got Cahén out of a refugee camp and into Montreal by giving him a job in 1942.
   Cahén is the subject of a new book by the tireless Jaleen Grove, who spent considerable time and effort researching Cahen's life and work, which includes some dramatic times in Montreal.
   She has written an excellent free ebook on the artist and contributed to a new book, which is the exhibition catalogue from Toronto's Beaverbrook exhibit.
   Cahén was a European arrival interned in a refugee camp from 1940 to 1942 during World War II. The camp, near Sherbrooke, was known as Camp N and housed about 700 men, mainly Jews, who had fled Hitler's Germany.
Cahen and Shapiro
   "It was a grim place, an old flooding train shed with no heat and hardly a toilet when they arrived," Grove tells Coolopolis. "They were guarded by armed soldiers and their freedoms were severely curtailed."
   Grove notes that Cahen managed to show some personality to get his boots back to the city. "Being able to turn on the charm under such stressful and demeaning circumstances was key to survival, for both staying out of fights and cajoling guards—and, for winning the sympathy of a comely young journalist, Beatrice Shapiro, who gained an interview with him one day."   
    Cahén saw Shapiro as a possible means of getting out of the refugee camp.
   "Cahén had bribed the other prisoners to allow him to get to meet Shapiro, since only one man was to be granted the privilege. They had instant chemistry, and taken with his energy and creativity, she went back to Montreal and begged her boss, an entrepreneur named Colin Gravenor, to employ Cahén—because securing a job was the ticket to getting him discharged from the camp. Gravenor, satisfying himself that local publishers such as the Montreal Standard would give Cahén steady illustration jobs to do, generously took him under his wing. He gave him an office and paid for a suit of clothes, and gave him work in his PR business for the hotel that he represented."
   Shapiro and Cahen became a passionate couple but eventually went their own separate ways, still remaining friends to the end however.
   It was not Colin Gravenor's first effort in helping those who Hitler tried to crush under his boot. Gravenor had previously led an attempt to get Canada to boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (also noted in another recent book) and headed an organization known as the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. Gravenor, whose humanitarian deeds were noted in the Vancouver Holocaust Museum, sprung out others from the camps, including Tony Oberleitner (a close associate of Wilhelm Reich) and Glay Sperling, who went on to teach photography at Dawson College.
    Cahen went on to become a great artist in Montreal before getting run over by a car in Toronto. Grove honours his legacy.
   "Oscar Cahén’s abstract painting is by turns vibrant and cheerful, or stormy and violent. He was remembered by his closest friends as being a funny, outgoing guy, but they say he sometimes had this brooding darkness about him too," Grove notes.
     These fabulous sketches as well as Cahen's other works were made possible because people like Gravenor and Shapiro put their necks on the line for a stranger. "Without their that initial support, Cahén probably would have returned to England, as those plans were already in the works. Instead, Canada benefited from his talents and drive, and he became one of the most influential illustrators and abstract painters of the 1940s and 1950s in Canada."

1 comment:

  1. This is soooo awesome! I had no idea about this person. Thanks so much. I LOVE Montréal history.


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