A Child of Turbulent Times

Posted DEC 20 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1525 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Among the seventy-nine "beautiful and meticulously executed watercolours and drawings" that were on view in Oscar Cahén's solo exhibition that opened in November 1934 at Stockholm's Ole Haslunds Haus was the portrait of his father. "When you are together with Oscar," a local newspaper reviewer intoned in a short notice, "you cannot avoid hearing him tell you about his father."

The portrait that was reproduced in the paper shows a severe Fritz Max, who, at the time of the opening, was living in Czechoslovakia and making movies, among them one titled, "The Kiss in the Snow." Basking in the light cast by his remarkable father, the young Oscar proudly announced that he too was involved in the film's production as a costume designer.

The eighteen-year-old Oscar, described as "a child of our turbulent time," had traveled widely by the time Stockholm exhibition opened. Precocious, in 1930, when he was fourteen, he enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Dresden (Dresden Academy of Fine Arts) by falsifying his birth certificate. Since he looked older than he was, Oscar was admitted to the institution that boasted such notable alumni as Caspar David Friedrich, Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix.

Creator of new worlds

Posted NOV 20 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1461 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Pablo Picasso,
Apollinaire, 1918
Fritz Max Cahén reached the peak of his career as a young writer and translator in 1913 with his adaptation and translation of Guillaume Apollinaire's epic and lyrical poem "Zone," for publication in the Berlin expressionist journal Der Stürm. "Zone" was part of a French language edition, published earlier in 1913, entitled Alcools, comprising a selection of Apollinaire's poems that combines classical verse forms with modern imagery. In the poem, a tormented poet wanders through the streets after the loss of his mistress. Cahén's translation made the French poet famous in Germany; it has been described "as a breakthrough of expressionism in Germany and the start of twentieth century poetry."

Cahén had spent the better part of the preceding year in Paris between 1912 and 1913. While he was there Apollinaire's Méditations esthétiques was published in January 1913, the first important study of Cubist painting; just before he left the city to return to Berlin, the poet's Antitradition futuriste appeared in Milan. His return to Germany coincided with that of the Berlin publisher Alfred Richard Meyer who, upon arriving in Berlin, contacted Cahén with the proposition to translate "Zone." While later in life Cahén recalled that it was, in fact, his idea, not Meyer's, to translate the poem into German, what is clear is that the publisher trusted Cahén enough to allow him to select an Apollinaire poem from the collection for the project.

Umbra Vitae

Posted NOV 9 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1389 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Georg Heym (text) and Ludwig Kirchner (woodcut)
Umbra Vitae (1924): Cover
Georg Heym (1887-1912)

The people on the streets draw up and stare,
While overhead huge portents cross the sky;
Round fanglike towers threatening comets flare,
Death-bearing, fiery snouted where they fly.

On every roof astrologers abound,
Enormous tubes thrust heavenward; there are
Magicians springing up from underground,
Aslant in darkness, conjuring to a star.

Through night great hordes of suicides are hurled,
Men seeking on their way the selves they've lost;
Crook-backed they haunt all corners of the world,
And with their arms for brooms they sweep the dust.

They are as dust, keep but a little while;
And as they move their hair drops out. They run,
To hasten their slow dying. Then they fall,
And in the open fields lie prone,

But twitch a little still. Beasts of the field
Stand blindly round them, prod with horns
Their sprawling bodies till at last they yield,
Lie buried by the sagebrush, by the thorns.

But all the seas are stopped. Among the waves
The ships hang rotting, scattered, beyond hope.
No current through the water moves,
And all the courts of heaven are locked up.

Trees do not change, the seasons do not change.
Enclosed in dead finality each stands,
And over broken roads lets frigid range
Its palmless thousand-fingered hands.

God of the Winding River

Posted NOV 4 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1046 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Fritz Max moved in Berlin literary circles, writing for journals and taking part in the dynamic scene involving young writers, poets and artists who were forging a new movement based in pure expression of the emotions, feelings, ideas and impulses. Fritz Max writes of the years 1912 - 1914 that, "It's true, we all loved Impressionism.  But we were sick of art exhausting itself in the fragmentation of form" based on using the visible world as a sole point of departure. What he and his artistic brethren sought was an entirely new artistic and poetic vocabulary that described what was roiling within the artist in a way that was intelligible, yet reflected what couldn't be seen, only felt.

In the summer of 1913, "having left Paris behind me," Fritz Max "dropped in" to the Berlin publishing house of Alfred Richard Meyer who was then establishing a reputation for publishing progressive, left wing, apolitical work. Meyer's circle, which existed until the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, championed Expressionism's literary revolution, and supported its rising stars that included poets Gottfried Benn and Georg Heym, writers Rudolf Leonhardt, filmmaker Rudolf Kurtz, artists Max Beckmann, Ludwig Meidner, and Fritz Max himself.

"A crafty fighter yet hypersensitive," begins Fritz Max's portrait description of the maverick publisher. "[He was] well versed in all the highways and byways of modern literature; hypererotic flows from his lips as easily as ecstatically sublimated academic humour.  Apollinaire comes to life, the Parnassians are a bit shaken at the gentle spleen vented upon them."

The Red Mephisto

Posted NOV 2 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1275 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Count Brockdorff-Rantzau leading the German delegation to
receive the Treaty of Versailles, 1919. Fritz Max Cahen was a
member of this delegation.
In 1915, the year before Oscar was born, his parents moved to Copenhagen where his father took up the position "as a newspaperman."  Discharged from the German Imperial Army after being wounded in the early days of the war in September 1914 at the battle of Baccarat-Blamont, and spending a protracted time convalescing, as a civilian Fritz Max took on the profession of journalism. The Municher Zeitung, an important liberal-minded paper at the time, hired him on the strength of his art criticism, particularly evident in an article he had written protesting "newspaper agitation" against French art during the war.  Not surprisingly, his article drew harsh criticism within Germany, some of it being directed at him as personal attacks, especially from the Director of the Berlin Museum, whom he described as "the pope of art in Germany." Fritz Max's rebuttal of the infallible opinions leveled at him was widely quoted in dozens of German newspapers, gaining him both notoriety and notice.

Ostensibly given a position as a war correspondent, when in Copenhagen Fritz Max was gradually absorbed into the German intelligence community. The advantage of Copenhagen lay in Denmark's neutrality during the war, a position that allowed information to enter the country freely from both sides of the conflict.  This gave a careful reader of German, French, English and Scandinavian papers opportunities to form nuanced and more balanced views of the conflict than merely those tarnished with the nationalistic bombast of propaganda from one side or the other.

Fritz Max's introduction to the "atmosphere of international intrigue," came under the tutelage of Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, a German diplomat who at that time was the ambassador to Denmark. Impressed with Fritz Max's facility with language, his ability to move fluidly across social strata, and his capacity "to keep his mouth shut," Brockdorff-Rantzau took the young man under his wing, eventually making him his press secretary, director of a secret propaganda bureau, and a "Commissar of the Reich."

The Butterfly

Posted OCT 19 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1732 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Praying Man, 1947
oil on board
63.5 x 53.34
Collection of the Cahen Archives
In January 1935, Fritz Max Cahen, along with his wife and son, Oscar, left their Scandinavian home and returned to Czecho-Slovakia where he continued his efforts to form a united front against Adolf Hitler. His task was formidable, and meant nothing less than establishing an entirely clandestine network of operatives and associates through which information could be shared and disseminated both within and outside Germany. The sole purpose was to counter Nazi propaganda originating with Joseph Goebbels.

A focal point of the information network was the so-called "letterbox" -- a man or woman whose job was to act as an intermediary in receiving and forwarding clandestine correspondence. The message was consistent, expressing the theme that, "We must stop Hitler before war breaks out." This warning was frequently written in chalk on walls throughout Germany. The lingua franca of expressing opposition to the political order was set down in the fugitive media of calcium dust!

When Fritz Max returned to Prague his goal as a leader of the resistance was to unify all elements of the opposition, from both ends of the political spectrum, into a more or less homogeneous organization. This meant that often radically divergent groups had to find common cause in the movement to overthrow the Nazi totalitarian state. Fritz Max's group, "The German Vanguard," aligned with independent Socialists, Social Democrats and the Catholic Party, and together, they formed an alliance with Dr. Otto Strasser's "Black Front," a movement of disenfranchised Nazi party members in exile in Sudetenland on the Czecho-Slovak frontier with Germany. Although the strange alliance of "The German Vanguard" with "The Black Front" married very different political ideologies -- Marxists with Socialists (never the Communists) and marginalized, former Nazis – all were firm in their purpose to bring the Hitlerian regime down before it ruined the German nation and people.

First Impressions

Posted SEP 29 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  2247 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

Dietrich Eckhart and Otto von Kursell, two pages from Russian Gravediggers (Munich: Deutscher Volks-Verlag, 1921). (Fritz Max not represented)

"I was received by a tall, slender young man -- he was of dark complexion, garbed in the traditional costume of diplomats."  With this image, I am introduced to Oscar's father by Wythe Williams, translator of Fritz Max Cahen's "Men Against Hitler." My research into the life of the son -- Oscar Cahen --  begins with trying to understand the complex father.  First impressions are telling, and this is made all the more compelling by the 1939 description of Fritz Max as a "brilliant former diplomat, now number one refugee from his fatherland, because of his hard and constant campaign against Nazism."

Peeled Back

Posted SEP 11 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  PAINTINGS  with  1399 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

This small format painting looks, for all the world, like a collage, made by pasting allusive, salmon-coloured shapes on to an illustration board and tying the disparate pieces together compositionally with a thread of white paint. Expectations are dashed though, when, upon taking a closer look, I see that the images are, in fact, what remains after the skin of the board has been peeled back, leaving coloured islands of paint.


Posted SEP 11 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  ARCHIVES  with  1057 VIEWS  and  1 COMMENT

My first visit to the Oscar Cahen Archives, tucked away in a corner of a Vancouver work/live condo complex, is coloured by the lingering impression of Oscar's early self portrait, painted when he was a student in Prague. It hangs on the wall in the research centre of the archives, quietly in command of the room. The artist's perceptive, intelligent eyes convey confidence and strength, and lend the room a vital energy.  Oscar's spirit infuses the archive.

Men Against Hitler

Posted SEP 11 2011  by  TOM SMART  in  RESEARCH  with  1528 VIEWS  and  0 COMMENTS

My research on Oscar Cahen is informed initially by this amazing book by Oscar's father, Fritz Max Cahen.  It tells the extraordinary story, written in 1939, on the very eve of World War II, of Fritz Max's work building a formidable resistance movement whose purpose was to overthrow Hitler.  Fritz Max was a diplomat for the German government, and was involved in the peace talks after World War I in Versailles.  His position as a diplomat gave him privileged access to the negotiations leading up to the Treaty and the punitive reparations that were levied upon the German people.  Fritz Max felt the terms of reparations were inordinately punitive, providing a seed for malcontents to rise in Germany if the treaty were to be signed. 

How prescient he was! After it was signed, economic conditions deteriorated and as living conditions worsened, the festering political environment proved a ripe spawning ground for extreme factional politics and the rise of the Nazi Party.