In 1955 construction began on Imperial Oil’s executive offices at 111 St. Clair Avenue West, in Toronto, a landmark high-rise that accommodated 1,200 people. Oscar Cahén (1916–1956) was commissioned to design a mural for the eighth-floor cafeteria and lounge area. It was a highly prestigious assignment, for which Cahén was paid a princely $7,200 (a man working in manufacturing made about $5,000 a year). He completed the commission just days before his death on November 26, 1956.
Cahén’s nature-derived, curvilinear design for three sections of wall and posts directly contrasts with the grey building’s mercenary International Modern structure with its even grid of windows. Intended to enliven this space of leisure, Cahén’s barb and crescent forms interact playfully with wide fields of pastel and vivid colours. The motif of a sun brightens the dim middle of the vast, proportionally low-ceilinged room. Critic Robert Fulford opined that Cahén “provided by far the most human touch to the new Imperial Oil building . . . it’s one of the best Canadian murals I’ve seen and it may be the best work of Cahén’s career.” Harold Town (1924–1990) thought that the mural broke with Cahén’s previous influences and “placed him, for the first time, in an arena which was entirely his own.”
Two of the mural sections were saved in 1979 before impending renovations and now await conservation; the third large mural and smaller sections on posts are presumed lost.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Oscar Cahén: Life & Work by Jaleen Grove.