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Art

Louis Kahan, Making Servicemen Look Like Stars

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page C01

The pencil drawings of World War II at the Australian Embassy aren't great art, nowhere near, but they do get you thinking.

All were drawn in North Africa, in Algeria, on hard, thin V-mail paper, the outlines done by a hard, sharpened pencil, the shading by soft graphite rubbed in with the finger. "Drawings by Dispatch: Portraits of U.S. Servicemen by Louis Kahan" shows sailors and soldiers, 50 of them, one at a time.


Louis Kahan sketched servicemen J.K. Anderson, left, and Ernest E. Clark in North Africa during World War II. (Embassy Of Australia)

All are young. Many have been wounded. Out there in the desert, not very far away, Allied armies have been fighting Afrika Korps panzers, but you do not get to watch. There are destroyers in the harbors, and airplanes in the skies, but these are not shown either, so soon your war thoughts fade. What makes these pictures interesting is how they send your mind, instead, to Hollywood. And to custom tailoring.

Harold Persing, who is 82, and from Howe, Ind., has come to see the show because of what happened to him in North Africa. As is often the case in war, what happened to him happened suddenly at first -- an air-raid siren, a rushed jump from a jeep, a broken leg -- and then very slowly. The hospital in which his leg mended wasn't a hospital but an arched-metal Quonset hut, hot in the African sun. He's in Washington because one day he looked up to see an odd little man with an unrecognizable accent standing at the foot of his bed.

"He asked if he could sketch me," Persing remembers. " 'Sure,' I said. It didn't take him five minutes. He had a sure hand."

The little man with the pencils was 5 feet 4 inches tall. He didn't sign his pictures. Where his signature should have gone he wrote "donated by a guy from Paris." But he wasn't from Paris, and he wasn't French, and, at least by the standards of the young sailor with the broken leg, he wasn't just a guy.

Louis Kahan (1905-2002) would become one of Australia's eminent portraitists, but not yet. He was an Austrian Jew who had long before got to Paris, where he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In Algeria he'd been seconded to the American Red Cross, which gave him a jeep and an assignment: Drive from hospital to hospital and make portraits of the troops.

Among GIs in Iraq, cameras are common. It was different in North Africa; no photographs allowed. But Kahan's drawings weren't photographs. He drew them all on standard "Victory Mail" forms, so that like other pieces of V-mail they could be microfilmed in theater then sent to the States, where, once enlarged, they would be forwarded to the families of the servicemen.

Persing's is addressed to his mother, on Elm Street, in Sturgis, Mich. It's him, all right, but something has been added. He looks like a movie star. Between 1943 and 1945 Kahan sketched thousands of servicemen. They all look like movie stars.

None of them has pimples. Their complexion suggests pancake makeup. Their eyes are moist. Their profiles are noble, and their hair shines the way hair does when it's been brilliantined and lit by klieg lights.

Kahan was trained in fastidiousness, though not as a painter, as a tailor.

His father's shop was among the best in Vienna. When Eugene Ormandy, the conductor, required a set of tails, or Conrad Veidt, the actor, desired a new suit, or officers at court were in need of a new uniform, they went to Kahan's.

"It was a very elegant shop in the very heart of Vienna,' says Lily Kahan, the artist's widow. "Adolf Loos did the interior. The fabrics were beautiful. Nothing but the best."

Young Louis, then called Ludwig, earned his Master Tailor's certificate in a deeply formal city where such credentials mattered. The Habsburg Empire was crumbling, but in Vienna, its capital, the arts weren't. Vienna's architects were excellent. So were its tenors, its pastry chefs, and its tailors.

The finest bespoke tailors didn't just cut and sew, didn't just sell and fit. They served. They called you sir. They exuded elegance. "When Louis's father died," says the artist's widow, "they went through all his closets, and found a comb in every suit." Their reading of your needs was cold-eyed, intimate, compassionate, and swift. Vienna was Freud's city. A slight paunch? Do not be concerned. One shoulder higher than the other? Small adjustments could be made. Vienna's finest tailors were accommodating almost, but not quite, to the point of servility. They not only fulfilled, they anticipated your requests. Ludwig Kahan was one of them. One sees it in his art.

What is stylish about his portraits, rote as they are, is their movie look, their glamour. Everyone in the art world will tell you nowadays that what's hot and new is photography. Kahan's Algerian portraits aren't hot and new. They're warm and old. They couldn't have been made with a camera. It wouldn't have been the same. Still, photography is in them -- movie photography. This is silver screen era art.

After the war, Kahan returned to Paris, where he did illustrations for Le Figaro. At one time he considered emigrating for Los Angeles (Otto Preminger was a customer, Billy Wilder a friend), but in 1947 he moved, instead, to Australia, where he designed costumes for the National Theatre Company and the Australian Opera, produced many portraits, won prizes and did fine.

He was 97 when he died. "We had a wonderful life together," said his widow.

Harold Persing got through the war and then returned to the Midwest, where he worked in the furniture business, and the machinery business, and did some long-haul trucking, and drove snowplows. He retired in 1989. He still wears his hair in a military crew cut, but it's white now. And he's put on a bit of weight.

He looked at the drawings of comrades, and then again at his own portrait. "Hey," he said. "I used to be good-looking, too."

Drawings by Dispatch: Portraits of U.S. Servicemen by Louis Kahan will remain on display at the Australian Embassy, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, through May 27. The exhibition is open to the public Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. For information call 202-797-3383. Admission is free.


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