Two historically significant Canadian abstract painters Oscar Cahén (1916-1956) and Gershon Iskowitz (1921-1988) made important contributions to the evolution of mid-20th Century modernism. Jeffrey Spalding gives us a history of these artists and introduces a new chapter to an often recounted story: the impact upon North America brought about by the influx of bright, new artistic talents from Europe as consequence of the events of World War II.
Oscar Cahén and Gershon Iskowitz: Artists Caught in Hitler’s Web
By Jeffrey Spalding
Gershon Iskowitz, Painting in Mauve, 1972. Oscar Cahén, Traumoeba, 1956.
The world celebrates and chronicles the history of the artists and intellectuals who escaped to New York and North America to evade Hitler: ‘the ones that got away’. Cahén and Iskowitz were not so fortunate. They were among those ensnared by Hitler’s web: ‘the ones who did not get away’. Their lives, their artistic development, their temperament and spirit were entangled and immeasurably altered. So too was their country and place of residence, and thus their professional associations and career path. Both artists endured horrific early life experiences and personal injustices during WWII. Their joyous, mature art is testament to their triumph over adversity.
In 1932, Cahén’s father, Fritz Max Cahén, a German Diplomat, formed an official opposition movement to promote the overthrow of Hitler. Their clandestine operation forced the Cahén family to abandon their home and possessions to crisscross Europe in order to evade capture. In 1939, Fritz Max Cahén’s book “Men Against Hitler“, translated into English and Spanish was published in the UK, USA and Mexico. It records artist, Oscar Cahén’s own 1938 arrest and interrogation in Czechoslovakia with respect to the same efforts. Shortly thereafter, Oscar Cahén fled to England. Ironically, tragically, he was arrested as a German alien and imprisoned 1939-1942. He was relocated to the ‘refugee camp’ at Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. There, his talent as an artist was noted, which ultimately lead to his release.
He settled first in Montreal and made contributions to the Allies effort as a graphic designer of War Posters. One year later, 1943, Cahén had a solo exhibition of his work at the prestigious Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Toronto and made an important impact upon the burgeoning art community in that city. Cahén is recognized as Canada’s leading magazine illustrator of the forties and early fifties.
Cahén’s work as a painter was equally distinguished. His work of the late forties was replete with reference to human sacrifice and tragic-comic themes. It expressed a somber, serious of purpose mood. The work exudes his consternation and profound sadness with his witnessed manifestations of human cruelty and intolerable indifference to suffering. He had to await his own personal and artistic, stylistic liberation from these demons. Soon, Cahén would be looking forward, towards art and life’s new possibilities, breaking away from the darkness of the war years.
In the early 1940s, Cahén moved to Toronto, Canada, where his European training and background placed him at the forefront of vanguard artists. His work rapidly developed. He was a key member of Canada’s progressive group of abstract artists of the 1950s, Painters 11. Active as an exhibiting artist since 1947, Cahén’s most celebrated works date from the brief six year period commencing in 1951. Works from 1951-1952 owe a debt, as homage, to Latin American artists such as Rico Lebrun and Ruffino Tamayo. Three of Cahén’s most highly acclaimed iconic paintings that represented him at numerous significant museum exhibitions: Candy Tree (1952), Austin Healy 100 Engine (1954) and Traumoeba (1956). Their mysterious, totemic forms and cryptic references to latent subject matter energized his approach to new abstract form. Perhaps Cahén’s Candy Tree makes oblique comment upon a key theme employed by an artist of great import to Cahén’s development, British painter, Graham Sutherland’s Thorn Tree (collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). The Cahén works of 1951-55 make useful comparison to the European CoBrA group, but most specifically to the late work of Jackson Pollock.
Cahén attained museum exhibition success in the early fifties in group and solo exhibitions. His work was included in the 1953 Sao Paulo Bienal, and in summer of 1956 his work was shown at the: “American Abstract Artists 20th Annual exhibition with ‘Painters Eleven’ of Canada”, Riverside Museum, New York. Later that year, the Smithsonian Institution circulated an exhibition of Painters 11 throughout the USA. Nov 26, 1956, Cahén’s Studebaker Silver Hawk collided with a truck, killing him instantly. At the time of his death, at the age of 40, Cahén’s work was just beginning to hit its stride. Numerous commentators lamented this loss, asserting that if he had lived on, he would have been Canada’s greatest painter.
The majority of Cahén’s work was not publicly shown during his lifetime; much of it has remained out of public view. A number of these works that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited. In some respects, they demonstrate that Cahén was evolving stylistic changes leading him away from his early association with Abstract Expressionism. These works foretell the spare, more reductive approach akin to Post-Painterly abstraction. Cahén’s work of 1955 and 1956 reveals the increasing impact of the art of Matisse, Miró, Calder and the artist’s rising interest in the art of Britain’s St. Ives group of painters (Patrick Heron, Victor Passmore, and Ben Nicholson, among others). Cahén’s work is admired for its audacious, idiosyncratic use of color and its graphic flair. He developed a very personal approach that re-invigorated Abstract Expressionist painting; he is considered one of Canada’s most innovative abstract artists.
Cahén’s artistic explorations were well known to his closest colleagues; they all communed regularly and exhibited together. After Cahén’s death, three of them: Jack Bush, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood came to the assistance of the artist’s widow to create an inventory of the Cahén works in the studio. This episode may, in some measure, account for the dramatic changes, and flowering thereafter, of the pared down approach towards early sixties modernist art adopted by Jack Bush and other members of Painters Eleven.
Cahén’s works are in the collections of the British Museum, National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Museum London, Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Cahén’s largest work, Warrior 1956 remains on long-term display at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, organized the first American retrospective of the artist’s work in 1968. Memorial exhibitions were organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario 1959, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 1960 and a Canadian national touring exhibition, with accompanying catalog, was circulated by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1983-1984.
Polish born, Gershon Iskowitz, traveled a darker path. The Nazis devastated the place of his birth, Kielce, and placed him in a forced labour camp at Lublin. He escaped, only to be recaptured and sent first to the concentration camp at Auschwitz and subsequently Buchenwald. Secretly he drew every day, recording the collective ordeal of the inhabitants of the camp. He maintained this ritualistic practice of drawing daily throughout his career; he believed it was the foundation of his abstract paintings. His entire family: parents, brothers and sisters all died at the hands of the Nazis. Miraculously, Gershon survived. He was sent to hospital near Munich to convalesce. Thereafter he was able to resume his childhood desire to study art. He enrolled at the Munich Art Academy in 1947, but quickly ran afoul of one of his instructors, the son of the famous landscape artist, Caspar David Friedrich. He was expelled for insolence. Iskowitz credits his grounding in art to a six month period of private study with Austrian Expressionist, Oscar Kokoschka. There too, he encountered the works of Nolde, Kirchner and other German moderns. To an extent, the mature art of Iskowitz became an amalgam of these two polarities, the mystic, transcendent reverence for the land coupled with the energetic mark making and exploration of pure form and formal invention.
Alone, Iskowitz immigrated to Toronto, Canada to reunite with distant relatives. He rejected taking ‘steady work’ or teaching stints at art schools. Instead, he settled into an austere life, in modest surroundings and devoted himself entirely to painting. His routine was a constant all his life, socializing and strolling through the city by day and each evening, by 1 am, immersing himself in his own private world, painting throughout the night. His early works were primarily drawings and watercolours, angry caricatures of the vile war incidents to which he was witness. Some were recollections of his village of Kielce, in a style and whimsical manner reminiscent of Marc Chagall. Soon, Iskowitz conjoined with landscape, the favoured subject of his adopted homeland, Canada. The early landscape-based paintings of Iskowitz are dour, serious, brooding and abstracted; Late Summer Evening 1962 is a magnificent example. A vestige of a tree-image lurks beneath the surface, veils of colour, the cloak of night, obscuring direct perception in a dreamlike, otherworldly dispersion of mottled light and shade. Its quiet, majestic calm serves as a place for introspection and contemplation; Friedrich would approve. It is a painting that makes useful comparison with Sam Francis, Milton Resnick and Morris Louis.
Throughout the 1960s, Iskowitz’ view of landscape was cautious, guarded; it was as if he perceived the forces of nature to be menacing, ominous or potentially threatening. His personal ‘salvation’ came through a fortuitous 1967 helicopter ride over the forest in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Looking down through the patches of clouds, the artist marvelled at the wondrous patterns and colors of the autumn trees below. His work, thereafter, explored joyous expressive color abstraction, dots and patches of pure color interspersed by wisps of white and grey veils in endless variety and combination.
Whereas much 1960s and 1970s modernist art derived from logic, structures, mathematical relationships, patterns and repeated gestures, Iskowitz’ work broke free. His asymmetric compositions, seemingly random, dispersion of ‘dots’ of color and the persistence of latent subject matter separated his work out from his contemporaries. His calligraphic freedom and unabashed glorying in the power of the sensation of color inspired a generation of abstract painters in Canada, a tendency at times referred to by various monikers: Eccentric Modernism or Exotic Modernism. Painting in Mauve, 1972 is a classic, signature–style work of his mature career. It was made in the year that he represented Canada at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Also that year, his work joined Oscar Cahén in an exhibition, Toronto Painters 1953-1965 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Iskowitz exhibited widely and frequently. His work of the seventies was the subject of a 1977 solo exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery, NY; and a 1977 solo museum show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In 1982, The Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a retrospective exhibition that toured Canada and to London, England.
Works by Iskowitz are in the collection of The National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Quebec, Tel-Aviv Museum, Tel-Aviv, Israel, Fort Lauderdale Art Museum, Florida, Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida and most of the principal art museums of Canada. His work is the subject of a monograph, Gershon Iskowitz: Painter of Light by Adele Freedman.
The Iskowitz estate is represented by Miriam Shiell Fine Arts, Toronto, www.miriamshiell.com. Works by Oscar Cahén are held by the Cahén Archives, Vancouver, BC www.oscarcahen.ca. The works of both artists are chronicled in all major published histories of Canadian Art and notably in a new volume, by Dr. Roald Nasgaard, Abstract Painting in Canada.
Jeffrey Spalding is an artist, writer, curator and Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Calgary. His works are in the principal public collections in Canada including the National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Canadian Embassy, Washington and Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal. He has served as Director at major art museums, including Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Appleton Museum of Art, Florida, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. He is author of numerous books and catalogues and organizer of countless exhibitions including Canada’s visual art entry for Expo 93 Korea. Spalding was President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (2007-2010) and awarded the Order of Canada (2007).
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