Fine artist and commercial illustrator Oscar Cahén (19161956) holds a unique place in Canadian art history.
Raised in the sophisticated, avant-garde art circles of interwar Europe (his father was a diplomat and political journalist), the artistically and intellectually precocious Cahén enrolled in the Dresden Art Academy at the young age of 14. Three years later, he was teaching and studying at the Rotter School in Prague. Forced to flee Europe in 1938, he escaped to England, where he (like thousands of other German refugees) was interned before he was shipped to a detention camp in Quebec.
His charm and artistic talent brought him to the attention of Canadian well-wishers, who worked for his release and found him employment as a magazine illustrator. Technically masterful, artistically original and stylistically diverse, Cahén thrived in his new environment and transformed the world of Canadian illustration. This success gave him the financial security to pursue a parallel career as a fine artist, in which capacity he is best known as a member of the Painters Eleven group.
After Cahéns early death at age 40, his widow and young son Michael relocated to Florida, where they placed much of the artists work in storage. The work was repatriated to Vancouver in the early 1990s, when Michael Cahén established the Cahén Archives to build the reputation and scholarly comprehension of his fathers work. It was then that I was introduced to Cahéns art on paper supports, and to their unique set of conservation challenges.
The hot, humid Floridian environment had resulted in damage such as surface dirt, accretions, discoloration and foxing (dark spots of discoloration caused by oxidized iron and/or mould). Straightforward problems in theory, they become challenging in practice because of Cahéns unconventional techniques and use of materials.
For example, soft-edged islands of pastel and hard-edged reticulated shapes of extremely water-sensitive dyes lose their visual impact when surrounded by discoloured paper, but conventional water-based treatments such as immersion are impossible. Even local treatment on the suction table is rendered ineffective by the dense, impermeable paper and paperboard that Cahén often used. Ten years ago, these were insurmountable problems. Fortunately, recent innovations in conservation have lead to some workable treatment options.
Water-sensitive media can be temporarily fixed with cyclododecane, an evaporating wax. Gore-Tex allows slow, even humidification to gently relax paper, which in turn allows local cleaning with rigid agar gels that can be cut to precise shapes for targeted cleaning. New research in the chemistry of cleaning has increased the number of chemical solutions that can be introduced (and removed) via these agar gels.
Even with these new tools, some of Cahéns works remain too delicate to treat, and must await future innovations before they can be safely cleaned. A consummate experimenter and innovator himself, I like to think Cahén would have been interested in and excited by the new techniques and materials his works have lead me to explore.