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A guy from Paris

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 2 October 2018

Self portrait, 1949 Louis Kahan
Self portrait, 1949 Louis Kahan

Louis Kahan, born in Vienna to Ukrainian parents, was singularly talented at drawing as a boy and aimed to become an artist; but his father, certain he couldn’t make a living at it, forbade him to go to art school. Accordingly, Kahan trained in his family’s tailoring business, receiving his Diploma from the Tailors’ Guild in 1925. He was to make a living from art, though – albeit in a very different environment from the glittering cities of ideas, music, art, coffee and fashion in which he grew to manhood.

At twenty, Kahan left Vienna for Paris. For two years he worked for the couturier Paul Poiret, creating outfits for Josephine Baker and meeting Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy. In 1939, he joined the Foreign Legion; in North Africa, he essentially worked as an artist and draftsman. Remaining in Oran after the armistice, from 1942 he made thousands of rather glamorous portraits of servicemen in French and American hospitals in North Africa, rendered at speed on air letters and signed ‘A Guy From Paris’. After the war he returned to Paris and worked as a draughtsman reporter for Le Figaro, drawing the Pétain trials.

In 1947 – by way of Hollywood, where he fell in with his old compatriot, Billy Wilder – Kahan decided to visit Australia, where his parents and sister were thriving tailors in Perth. He was invigorated by the city, where he held his first solo exhibition. ‘To see him draw gives the delight that any expert performance always yields’, wrote the critic for the West Australian. Late in life, he said he found it rewarding to settle in Australia because ‘you were able to contribute something … to the life here … I want to say this without any pretense but this is a country where you feel that you are in the middle of creating, um  – well I hate big words … if I exclude myself – civilisation, what can be called civilisation, in days to come.’

Soon after Kahan moved to Melbourne, in 1950, he made a thrilling series of austere portraits of writers for the journal Meanjin. He married Lily Isaac in 1955 and they spent four years abroad; Yehudi Menuhin got him an exhibition of portraits at the Festival Hall, and he worked in stage and costume design. He won the Archibald in 1962 with a startling portrait of Patrick White. Over the ensuing decades his portraits were hung in countless Melbourne homes and institutions. Kahan was able to return often to Paris and kept experimenting with art techniques and mediums until he died.

Eight of Louis Kahan’s drawings were amongst the first 26 portraits acquired by the Portrait Gallery in 1998. Many more have entered the collection since, most of them through the generosity of his widow Lily. The works comprise an expressive composite portrait of Australian public figures in the 1960s and 1970s. He often drew them at home as he watched them talking on television programs like This Day Tonight.

1Rudy Komon. 2David Williamson, late 1970's. Both Louis Kahan.

Rudy Komon MBE served with the Czech resistance before emigrating to Sydney, and, in 1958, converting a Woollahra wine shop into an art gallery. David Williamson AO, playwright, saw his earliest works premiere at experimental theatres in Melbourne at the beginning of the 1970s.

1Paul Hasluck. 2Harold Holt. Both Louis Kahan.

Sir Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck KG GCMG GCVO was not only governor-general, but a historian, poet and Liberal politician who held continual ministerial office from 1951 to 1969. Harold Holt CH PC served in parliament for 30 years before becoming prime minister in early 1966 and disappearing off the Victorian coast in late 1967.

1Sir John Gorton. 2Sir John McEwen. Both Louis Kahan.

John Gorton GCMG AC CH was prime minister from early 1968 to early 1971. Sir John McEwen CH GCMG led the Country Party from 1958 to 1971 and masterminded Australia’s postwar tariff protection. He preceded Gorton as prime minister for the 23 days after Holt vanished.

1Sir William Dobell. 2Robert Hughes, late 1970s. Both Louis Kahan.

Sir William Dobell OBE painted five or six pictures ‘that can accurately be described as a masterpiece’, according to Robert Hughes AO, severe critic, historian and biographer, who wrote on art for Time magazine from the 1970s.

1Charles Lloyd Jones. 2Peter Hall. Both Louis Kahan.

Sir Charles Lloyd Jones, chairman of David Jones Limited from 1920 to 1958 and first chair of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, was a major arts patron. Architect Peter Hall completed the Sydney Opera House after Dane Jørn Utzon resigned and left Australia in 1966.

Austrian-born conductor and composer Henry Krips won the 1951 Commonwealth Jubilee competition for a new national song with ‘Land of Mine’, but it was passed over for the new anthem in 1984.

Related people

Louis Kahan

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