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Louis Kahan

1905 – 2002

Louis Kahan was born in Russia to Jewish parents, and grew up in Vienna, where he trained as a tailor. At 20 he went to Paris, where he worked for the couturier Paul Poiret as a tailor and then a designer. In 1939, he enlisted in the Foreign Legion; as the war progressed he worked for the American Red Cross, making thousands of glamorous portraits of wounded servicemen in French and American hospitals in North Africa. After the war he returned to Paris and worked as an illustrator for Le Figaro, but in 1947 he came to Australia. He settled in Melbourne in 1950. Soon after he arrived the editor of Meanjin, Clem Christesen, asked him to make a series of pen and ink portraits of writers for the journal. Critic Robert Nelson wrote that these portraits 'stand tall in the great tradition of intellectual homage: direct, well observed, economical, even brusque'. Over the next fifty years his pen and ink portraits were hung in many Melbourne homes, while he continued to experiment with techniques and fields of activity. The Jewish Museum held a Kahan retrospective in 1997, comprising portraits, stained glass, drawings, paintings, prints, costume and set designs and ephemera. A selection of his war drawings was shown at the Australian Embassy in Washington in 2005. Kahan won the Archibald Prize in 1962 with a startling portrait of Patrick White.

Updated 2018