Louis Kahan was a versatile, multi-talented artist and designer. He served in the French Foreign Legion and worked as a tailor in Paris where he associated with Josephine Baker and Matisse. He settled in Australia in 1947 and was best known as a sketcher and painter, winning the Archibald with a portrait of Patrick White in 1962.
painter, printmaker and stage designer, was born Ludwig Kahan in Vienna on 25 May 1905, son of a Russian-Jewish tailor. His family nickname Louis was adopted throughout his life. Although he wanted to train as an artist, his father persuaded him to be a tailor, although he attended evening art classes and continued to draw. He moved to Paris in 1925 and was employed as a master tailor for Paul Poiret. Within a few weeks he was appointed a designer for Poiret; designing clothes for Josephine Baker, Colette and other celebrities. He met Matisse, Derain, Dufy, Vlaminck and other artists who visited Poiret. When he rejoined his father’s flourishing business in Vienna (working from premises designed by Adolph Loos), he continued to visit Paris twice yearly to see the collections. Later he worked in Paris as a freelance designer, illustrator and painting portraits.
When war was declared he tried to enlist but was interned as an enemy alien. His only alternative was to serve with the French Foreign Legion; he was in North Africa when France capitulated. He held his first solo show at Oran in 1942. When the allied forces landed in North Africa he became an interpreter and technical draughtsman. Supporting himself by weekend work, he also drew 15 to 20 portraits a day for five days a week of wounded soldiers in hospitals on air letters which were photographed (10 copies to each soldier) then sent to families and friends. He was known as 'a guy from Paris’, which was how he signed the drawings. Encouraged by Albert Marquet, he also began oil painting in North Africa, beginning by copying prints by Cézanne and Renoir. After the war he returned to Paris and in 1946, as a staff draughtsman on Le Figaro , covered the trial of Pétain’s ministers while studying printmaking at the Bibliothèque Nationale and taking lessons in the medium at Colarossi’s. He also worked on painting (possibly at La Grande Chaumière, Paris).
Kahan came to Australia in 1947, via the USA, to visit his parents in Perth. He worked in Perth in 1947-50 (the Art Gallery of Western Australia acquired two drawings from a solo exhibition he held there) then lived mainly in Melbourne where he designed for the National Theatre and Australian Opera as well as painting and drawing. In Australia he was best known as a painter. He had over 50 exhibitions from 1947. He exhibited regularly in the Archibald, e.g. portrait of Albert Tucker, and won the prize for his portrait of Patrick White in 1962. He did many drawings and prints, mainly etchings. Many of his drawings of writers were published in Meanjin , in the Melbourne Age and in various books.
He met his wife Lily Isaacs, 21 years his junior, when visiting his parents and sister in Perth. They married in 1954 and went to Paris and London where Kahn studied and worked (including designing for the Welsh Opera Company). He returned to Melbourne in 1958 to work as a painter also, from 1969, teaching Adult Education art classes. He also continued to visit Paris and make numerous drawings there, his last visit being in 1999 when he was 94. He did many etchings and he designed stained-glass windows for churches and synagogues (e.g. Great Synagogue windows, Sydney, 1983) but is especially known for his portrait drawings of writers, musicians, artists (e.g. Max Meldrum 1951) and historians, most now in public collections. In 1961 the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased his portrait of Albert Tucker and in 1962 he won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of Patrick White. A retrospective was held at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1992. Kahan died in July 2002, aged 97, survived by Lily and two daughters, Rachelle and Dena.
A woodcut self-portrait of Kahan exists: 'The Artist and His Tools – The Artist’s Only Woodcut’ 1947, woodcut (edn 80), illustrated Butler 1981 (also illustrated as 'Self Portrait’ in Lebovic & Warner, Fifty Years , cat.39). Kahan’s work in the National Gallery of Victoria includes work in Artists in Profile , a collection of drawings commissioned by the Age and presented by that newspaper in 1965.