Lous Kahan: art, theatre fashion

The artist Louis Kahan is well-known in Australia for his portraits, winning the Archibald Prize in 1962 for his painting of the author Patrick White. Lesser known is Kahan's work in theatre and fashion, both prior to and after his arrival in Australia in 1947. The exhibition, Louis Kahan: art, theatre, fashion, at the Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn in Melbourne (27 August - 23 October 2016) reveals an artistic life which moved between Vienna and Paris between the wars and Australia and Britain in the post-WWII era.            

Born in Vienna in 1905 into a family of master tailors, Kahan's training as a tailor was to have an enduring influence throughout his life. Completing a master diploma of tailoring, Kahan entered his father's business, Kahan Tailors, whose clientele included leading actors, singers and musicians of the day. Amongst these were the actors Max Pallenberg and Konrad Weidt. Moving to the the central Neuer Markt, Wolf Kahan commissioned the modernist architect Adolf Loos to design the interiors for the business' two showrooms. This choice of architect placed the Kahans within a select group of buisnesses which championed Viennese modern design.

Determined to pursue a career as an artist, Kahan left for Paris in 1925 where he attended life classes at La Grande Chaumière, while making a living as a fashion designer and illustrator. Kahan immersed himself in the vibrant cultural life of the city and from 1925 to 1927 he was house designer for the couturier Paul Poiret. Kahan arrived at Maison Paul Poiret just as the designer was fitting out his three lavish barges for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes which opened in Paris in April 1925.

Later in the year Kahan was photographed with the staff of Maison Paul Poiret on Saint Catherine's Day, the 25th of November. Dressed in fancy dress, face blackened and wearing a large hat, Kahan sits between Poiret (standing to his right) and the new stage sensation, Jospehine Baker (seated cross-legged on the floor) who astounded audiences with her energetic Charleston dance in La Revue Nègre. Kahan's lively sketch of Baker, mid-performance, has been executed on the back of Maison Paul Poiret letterhead. Baker became one of the highest paid performers of her day and she was a client of Poiret during the time Kahan was house designer.

Through Poiret, who collaborated with many leading artists of the day, Kahan met Matisse, Derain, Dufy and Vlaminck, among others. It was while working at Maison Poiret that Kahan first ventured into theatre design, creating costumes for the historic Théâtre du Gymnase and the Folies Bergère cabaret. In 1926 he created costumes for the silent film La Châtelaine du Liban and for the stage play La Vagabonde, written and performed by the French novelist Colette in 1927, who appeared on stage alongside Poiret.

In 1930 Kahan moved back to Vienna to assist in the family business. Over the following six years he regularly returned to Paris to sketch the fashion collections for Viennese magazines. At the same time Kahan also ran a business, Tessylco, in partnership with the Italian Giuseppe Bianchi, which produced hand-woven silks. In 1936 Kahan returned to live in Paris. With the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938 and the Aryanisation of businesses, Kahan's father was forced to hand over Kahan Tailors to gentile members of his staff. Soon after Kahan's parents and sister fled Austria, settling in Perth, Australia.

When war broke out, Kahan, who was living in Paris, was deemed an enemy alien. An alternative to internment was to join the Foreign Legion. Having done so, Kahan spent the war in Algeria and Morocco. It was during this time that he made the shift to becoming a full-time artist. On his return to Paris in 1945 he became a staff artist for Le Figaro and covered the war trials of Marshal Pétain and ministers of the Vichy government. Separated from his family for almost ten years, Kahan decided to visit Australia, travelling first to America where he met up with his friend, film director and screenwriter, Billy Wilder, who had immigrated to Hollywood in 1933.  Gaining access to the lot of Paramount Pictures, Kahan sketched Dorothy Lamour, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in costume on the set of Road to Rio, as well as Randolph Scott who was filming the Gunfighters and Ray Milland.

Although Kahan was encouraged to seek work in Hollywood as a designer, reunited with his family in Australia he decided to make Australia his home. Kahan quickly established himself as an artist of note and in 1950 was drawn to Melbourne where he designed the first of many theatrical productions in an industry influenced by the recent emigration of European artists. Kahan's first production, the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, was produced by the Viennese émigré Stefan Haag, who invited Kahan to design the sets and costumes. Staged by the National Theatre's opera company, the production met with critical acclaim. These accolades were repeated the following year for Kahan's designs for the Australian debut of The Consul. For this production, his innovative moving sets were described as a ‘new and brilliant feature’, which allowed scene changes to happen mid-performance in view of the audience.

Offers to design for the stage continued and in 1954 Kahan designed the sets and costumes for the Royal Command Performance of the Tales of Hoffmann. Little survives beyond the page of Kahan's prolific output for the stage. Six masks however that he crafted himself (from bandages and plaster of Paris) for the Tales of Hoffmann demonstrate the material and expressive qualities of Kahan's work, which was steeped in a deep knowledge and love for European theatre and opera traditions. His gouache and pencil costume designs not only express a sense of form and scale, but also reveal Kahan's technical expertise in cut and construction. Numerous designs include small-scale sketches of pattern pieces and instructions for the costume cutter and maker. Fullness and fit are all carefully articulated.

The last theatre production Kahan designed was L'Elisir d'Amore for the Australian Opera in 1975. At the age of seventy he concentrated on his painting, portrait work and printmaking. Always drawn to the figure, Kahan continued to depict tailors and dressmakers at work. In the last decade of his life however, the figure is replaced by the tailor's mannequin or pattern pieces. It was at this time that Kahan revisited his early life as a tailor and his years in Paris. His late works are populated with objects from his early life - tailor's shears, tape measure, patternmaker's L-square and a wristband pin cushion. Combined with the tools of the artist - a palette, paint brush and spatula- these objects symbolise the span of Kahan's life, from a young tailor in Vienna to fashion designer in Paris and fully-fledged artist in Australia.

Louis Kahan: art, theatre, fashion

Town Hall Gallery, Cnr Burwood and Glenferrie Rds, Hawthorn, Melbourne

27 August – 23 October 2016

Louis Kahan with mask - Despina (Nancy Rasmussen) disguised as a lawyer, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953. Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan with mask - Despina (Nancy Rasmussen) disguised as a lawyer, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953. Kahan Family Collection.

Kahan Tailor business card designed by Louis Kahan, Vienna, c.1935, 14.7 x 11.8 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Kahan Tailor business card designed by Louis Kahan, Vienna, c.1935, 14.7 x 11.8 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Wolf Kahan seated in Kahan Tailor's showroom designed by Adolf Loos in c.1930, Vienna, 1950. Kahan Family Collection.

Wolf Kahan seated in Kahan Tailor's showroom designed by Adolf Loos in c.1930, Vienna, 1950. Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, fashion design 'Boulevard' for Maison Paul Poiret, Paris, c.1926, mimeograph, 27.5 x 18 cm, RMIT Design Archives. 

Louis Kahan, fashion design 'Boulevard' for Maison Paul Poiret, Paris, c.1926, mimeograph, 27.5 x 18 cm, RMIT Design Archives. 

Louis Kahan, Josephine Baker, Paris, 1926, pencil on paper, 23.4 x 15.4 cm, RMIT Design Archives.

Louis Kahan, Josephine Baker, Paris, 1926, pencil on paper, 23.4 x 15.4 cm, RMIT Design Archives.

Boris Lipnitzki, Paris, St Catherine's Day at Maison Paul Poiret, 25 November 1925, 19 x 29 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Boris Lipnitzki, Paris, St Catherine's Day at Maison Paul Poiret, 25 November 1925, 19 x 29 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Dorothy Lamour, Road to Rio, 1947, pencil on paper, 29 x 21.2 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Dorothy Lamour, Road to Rio, 1947, pencil on paper, 29 x 21.2 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Costume design for Don Alfonso, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953, gouache and pencil on paper, 33 x 21 cm, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Centre.

Louis Kahan, Costume design for Don Alfonso, Cosi fan tutte, National Theatre Opera Company, Melbourne, 1953, gouache and pencil on paper, 33 x 21 cm, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Centre.

Louis Kahan, Still life over Paris, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 59 x 79 cm (framed), Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Still life over Paris, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 59 x 79 cm (framed), Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Torso and samples II, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 87.5 x 67.5 cm, Kahan Family Collection.

Louis Kahan, Torso and samples II, 1995, oil on canvas on marine ply, 87.5 x 67.5 cm, Kahan Family Collection.