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Louis Kahan: life and works

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By Gwylym Owen

Louis Kahan AO (5 May 1905 – 16 July 2002) was an Austrian-born Australian artiste whose long career included fashion design, illustration for magazines and journals, painting, printmaking and drawing. He is represented in most major collections in Australia as competently as in Europe and USA. He won the Archibald Prize in 1962 past a portrait of Patrick White.

Louis Kahan was born in Vienna in 1905 and initially trained as a tailor when his father. However, he was particularly drawn to art and as a teenager man sketched his father’s clients, who included well-known actors and musicians of the day. In 1925 he travelled from Vienna to Paris where he worked with well-known couturier Paul Poiret, first as a tailor and then designer. Through Poiret he met many artists, including Matisse, Dufy and Vlaminck. He designed costumes for Josephine Baker, Collette and the Follies Bergeres. He immersed himself in the bohemian cartoon of the city and began moving picture drawing in Montparnasse. At this times he also produced freelance illustrations for newspapers and magazines.

He enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in 1939 and was sent to Algeria, North Africa as a lawsuit artist, although he had never acknowledged any formal art training. He had an exhibition at Oran in 1942. He was a voluntary artiste for the Red Cross along with 1943 and 1945. During this time, photography of soldiers was not permitted. Louis made beyond 2,000 drawings of upset soldiers living thing cared for in the hospital at Oran and these were v-mailed (an in advance form of microfilm) to the families of soldiers. When he found that the originals were being destroyed after transmission Kahan began to keep them and beyond 300 were later complete by him to the Red Cross Museum in Washington, USA.

He returned to Paris after the war, and was employed by Le Figaro to sketch the court scenes of the clash trials.

After travelling across the United States he moved to Perth, Western Australia to partner his family, who had emigrated to Australia since the war. In Perth he had his first solo exhibition and began to be endorsed by the art world, with pretense purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

He moved to Melbourne in 1950 where his gift for portraiture was ascribed by Melbourne Herald art critic, Alan McCulloch, who introduced him to Clem Christesen, editor of Meanjin. He made many portraits of Australian and new celebrities, including Geoffrey Blainey, Judy Cassab, Manning Clark, Arthur Boyd, Dame Joan Sutherland, Yehudi Menuhin and Luciano Pavarotti. Many of the original drawings for Meanjin are now in the Baillieu Collection of Melbourne University.

On a return vacation to Perth in 1953 he met and married Lily. After full of life in London for some mature they returned to Australia in 1959 and then to Melbourne in 1960. Here he collaborated behind producer Stephen Haag, designing sets and costumes for opera and theatre. The Victorian Art Centre, Melbourne, has a large stock of his portraits of musicians, and set and costume designs.

In his paintings, prints and drawings Louis Kahan explored many interests and themes, including dreams, death, and his own life. Childhood games, portraits and nudes were ongoing subjects. Symbolism particularly characterises his difficult works. Later, dreamlike prints and paintings often behave Kahan’s tools of the trade: palette, brushes, tailor’s scissors and tape. These represent a kind of metaphorical self-portrait and vibrancy history.

In 1993 Louis Kahan was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for encouragement to the arts.

He died in 2002, aged 97.

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