Born into a family of master tailors in Vienna in 1905, Louis Kahan was drawn to art from an early age. He began as a child by sketching portraits of his father's clients, who included famous actors and musicians of the time. He obtained his masters diploma in tailoring as a young man and his life long fascination with the human form and the subject of creative people at work can be traced to this first trade. The discipline which the craft instilled in him also stayed with him, as did the typically Viennese love of music.
Always adventurous, in 1925 Kahan left Vienna for Paris where he found work with the renowned couturier Paul Poiret as a tailor and then designer. Through Poiret he met several artists, including Matisse, Dufy and Vlaminck. He designed costumes for Josephine Baker and Collette in her stage play La Vagabonde and for the Follies Bergères. Kahan immersed himself in the bohemian life of the city and began life drawing at the Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, in addition to doing freelance illustration for newspapers and magazines.
When war broke out, Kahan joined the Foreign Legion and left for Oran, Algeria. When the allied forces arrived in North Africa he was demobilised and, with no formal training, began his life as an artist, participating in group shows in Algiers and Casablanca. In North Africa he met French artists Edy Legrand and Albert Marquet, who praised his work, encouraging him to pursue his new career.
From 1943-5 Kahan began his personal contribution to the war effort, drawing thousands of portraits of wounded allied soldiers, mostly Americans, signing them modestly "by a guy from Paris". Copies of these portraits on 'Victory Mail' were sent to loved ones back home and many of the original drawings are held in War Museums in Australia and the United Kingdom. In 2005 several hundred of these were presented to the Red Cross Museum in Washington by his family. Through these portraits, Kahan honed his skills and his ability to capture the essence of his subject with economy and speed. These qualities proved useful on his return to Paris after the war, when Kahan was employed as a staff artist by Le Figaro to cover the war trials of Pétain and other collaborators and they remained the hallmarks of his work.
In 1947 Kahan travelled across the US, meeting up with old friends and acquaintances from Vienna, including film directors Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger. In California he sketched several Hollywood stars on set, amongst them Randolph Scott, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Wilder suggested Kahan use his design skills in Hollywood, but his destination was Perth in Western Australia, where he was reunited with his family, who had emigrated from Austria before the war. Here, he had his first solo exhibition and his work was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Kahan moved to Melbourne in 1950 where he became friends with artist George Bell, writer Alan McCulloch and Clem Christensen, editor of the influential literary journal Meanjin Quarterly, which published many of his portraits of Australian writers. He later donated the complete series of Meanjin portraits to the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. In 1955, newly wed to Lily Isaac, he left for Europe and London, where an exhibition of his portraits of famous musicians, arranged by Yehudi Menuhin, was held at the the Festival Hall. His lifelong love of music was also expressed in stage and costume design in the UK for the Welsh National Opera Company and Saddlers Wells, and in Australia for The National Theatre and the Australian Opera. Most of his portraits of celebrated musicians, composers and conductors are held in the collection of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne. These were published by Macmillan Art Publishing in the book The Great Music Makers.
After four years abroad, Kahan settled in Melbourne with his young family and established himself as a portrait artist. His work in this field included a series on artists and other celebrated Australians for The Age newspaper, later published as Australian Artists and Uncommon Men. National recognition of his work came with his 1962 portrait of writer Patrick White, which won the Archibald Portrait Prize that year.
As a painter, Kahan explored various interests in thematic series. Childhood
games, and the nude were ongoing subjects. Symbolism rather than realism
characterises this work and an autobiographical element is clear. Dreams,
death and his own life were explored in his major series and late in life
his paintings feature the tools of his two trades: palette, brushes, tailors'
scissors and tape measure are suspended over Paris, dressmakers' dummies
and patterns come to life. In the words of Leslie Harding (Curator, Heide
Museum of Modern Art):
Kahan continued to work and live life to the full until the last year of his life. In 1993 his contribution to Australian cultural life was recognised when he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO). On his 90th birthday his peers awarded him the Australian Painters and Sculptors Medal, an honour given only to a handful of artists. While his place in Australian art is assured and he explored national mythic images in his Waltzing Matilda and Shearer series, he remained a European in sensibility and continued throughout his life to visit his beloved Paris. He died, much loved by his family, friends and peers, in his home in Melbourne at the age of 97.