In this work painter and graphic artist Oscar Cahén (1916–1956) depicts Hiroshima’s obliteration by nuclear attack on August 6, 1945 for The Standard. The image illustrates an account by John Hersey (first published in The New Yorker) describing the suffering of civilians from radiation in grisly detail. But Hiroshima required a treatment suitable for the newspaper’s general audience: “Not too much blood, please!” the client pleaded. The illustrations also had to solicit sympathy for the victims—no small feat given that Japan was seen as the deserving enemy at the time. Additionally, Cahén had to work in a style that would translate well to the solid colours most expedient for newsprint.
Cahén chose to portray realistically proportioned figures free of caricature, rendered in black line. The cover shows the vulnerable: an elderly man, hat respectfully held in his hand, and foraging women and children dwarfed by a wasted landscape. The menacing, abstract shape of twisted wreckage in the foreground not only indicates the force of the blast but also nods to the tradition of Japanese woodcut design.
Hiroshima was a major commission, including an additional fourteen spot-illustrations of survivors, wreckage, and rebuilding efforts, and four decorated capital letters. When American literary agents saw Cahén’s work, they wrote him to say that of all the illustration done for the eight hundred publications of Hiroshima worldwide, Cahén’s were their favourite.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Oscar Cahén: Life & Work by Jaleen Grove.