John Kashdan was born in London in 1917 of a Russian father and English mother, growing up in straitened circumstances. When he was twelve he made the decision to become an artist, but had to leave school and work at various jobs from the age of fourteen. He had started to paint on his own, and attended evening classes at a Working Man's Institute, where one of his lecturers recognised his talent and suggested that he apply to the Royal Academy Schools.
In 1935 Kashdan visited Paris and spent the summer painting and exploring Northern France. Money he received as compensation from an accident enabled him at last to start at the Royal Academy Schools in 1936. As a first year student he won the R.A. Gold Medal and Travelling Scholarship, which helped him spend the summers from 1936 to 1939 in the South of France, staying between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. By an early stage in his time at the R.A. he had won almost all of the other prizes awarded for painting and drawing, including two more scholarships: the British Institute Scholarship and the Landseer Scholarship. These were very important for Kashdan - prizes and scholarships were his only source of income and made it possible for him to work in France until war broke out. Kashdan was accepted for the Royal College of Art and also offered a grant, but he had enjoyed the freedom of working on his own at the Royal Academy and felt that the RCA would be too regimented for him. In 1943 he moved to Cambridge, where he got to know many of the artists and writers based there during the war.
During his early years in Cambridge, Kashdan's paintings showed the influence of Picasso and Bracque as well as that of Juan Gris, whose work he had seen among a notable collection of modern European paintings at the house of his friend Gustav Kahnweiler. Kashdan's paintings of this period, mainly of still-life, demonstrated his interest in design and colour construction, and employed the stock ingredients of table, fruit, book and wine bottle. His Artist and Model series of paintings in 1943 were more exuberant, with flamboyant colour and bold use of line. Kahnweiler encouraged and helped Kashdan, and was responsible for getting his first exhibition put on at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1945.
Kashdan kept open house during his time in Cambridge, and these informal gatherings of literary figures such as John Lehman, Andrew Pearse, Wolf Mankowitz, Geoffrey Moore and Arthur Koestler, grew into the Contemporaries Group, which moved to one of the colleges as the numbers grew. Kashdan's paintings, drawings and monotypes were used to illustrate Cambridge literary magazines such as The Bridge, Focus, and The Critic. In 1945, Focus One was published, with a lithographic cover by Kashdan, and the first illustrated article about his work by H. Osborn. Another of his interests was the theatre scene in Cambridge - especially puppet theatre, which became a subject of some of his paintings and prints. Later this led to his involvement in using dramatic improvisation as a vehicle for teaching in art schools.
Kashdan also formed a friendship with Henry Moore, and used to visit him regularly at his studio in Much Hadham. He was impressed by the simple abstract shapes of Moore's early sculpture and by his Shelter Sketchbooks which were published during the war. Kashdan later recalled looking through the original sketchbooks with Moore, and admiring the effects that Moore had achieved by washing watercolour over textured grounds of ink, chalk or wax. Moore encouraged Kashdan and brought his work to the attention of galleries and museum curators, including James J. Sweeney of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Another artist friend was Richard Ziegler, a German refugee also living in Cambridge. Ziegler, who had been a friend of Paul Klee in Germany, had developed his own print-making process using transfer drawing and duplicator paper to make editions of his prints. He achieved a freedom of expression that impressed Kashdan, who evolved his own personal techniques to make monotypes instead; a monotype being a unique impression on paper. Kashdan produced a great variety of monotype prints in the 1940s and 1950s, often combining the classic monotype technique used in the past by Dégas, with a form of offset drawing similar to that pioneered by Klee and Ziegler. He also experimented with a method of etching on acetate and a simple form of sreenprinting.
Paul Klee was a strong influence on Kashdan in the mid 1940s. Kashdan had been given a book on Klee towards the end of the war, which had an immediate impact on his work; and at about the same time met Jankel Adler who had been closely associated with Klee in Dusseldorf in the early 1930s. Adler also used Klee's offset drawing technique and had passed it on to the young artists who had gathered round him when he lived in Scotland from 1940 to 1943. These artists, Robert Coloquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Benjamin Creme and Robert Frame, all made their way to London, following Adler. Adler had a profound effect on them, as he did on John Kashdan when they met at Kashdan's exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. Kashdan valued Adler's friendship, and they met and talked about their work whenever Kashdan visited London.
In 1946 Kashdan had been invited to send about fifty of his monotypes for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and he showed this portfolio to Adler before the prints were dispatched. Adler felt that the prints were powerful and innovative, and took him to meet 'The Two Roberts', Colquhoun and MacBryde, and John Minton, who shared a studio in the same building as Adler in Bedford Gardens, Notting Hill. Kashdan's monotypes, and the techniques he had developed, impressed Colquhoun and MacBryde, and they began to make their own monotypes, initially very influenced by Kashdan and Adler. Kashdan himself also came to feel great empathy with Colquhoun's poetic vision and emotional intensity. The influence of another poetic imagination was that of Cecil Collins, who Kashdan had met in Cambridge.
Jankel Adler's main influence on Kashdan and 'The Roberts' was to pursue what Michael Middleton has called the quest 'to bring the human figure within a post-Cubist, post-Expressionist framework'. Like Adler, Kashdan used archetypal and even grotesque, figures and faces to represent universal images of the suffering of the war years. Kashdan had been greatly influenced by the German Expressionist printmakers, but he had also encountered the work of the Mexican popular artist Pousada after finding a monograph of his prints in a Cambridge bookshop. Pousada's tendency towards caricature and his bizarre visions of grinning skeletons bedecked with striking hats and clothes were echoed in Kashdan's monotype series of Nocturnal Heads and Insect Women, in which he portrayed sinister figures of the night derived from Kafka's Metamorphosis, and savagely caricatured society women as beetles with glittering shells.
Picasso had become the dominating influence on British art after the war, although by 1943 Kashdan had already absorbed some of this new decorative and formal strength. The relief felt at the end of the war was tempered by pessimism - there was shock at the revelations of wartime atrocities, and anxiety about the atom bomb. Kashdan felt progressively less interested in being part of what he called 'the gallery scene'. His earlier light-hearted pictures had not reflected any sense of wartime anxiety, but his mood and his work had changed dramatically and become dark, intense and brooding, highly charged with grief and drama. In his 1947 paintings, Family with Dead Bird and Grieving Children, the bird was a symbol of freedom surrounded by mourning figures representing Kashdan's own post-war emotions.
Kashdan's monotypes and drawings were exhibited in 1947 at The Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1948 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. From 1948 to 1950 he continued to exhibit in mixed exhibitions in London and Cambridge. Commercial galleries admired his work, but tried to suggest less sombre subjects and a brighter palette; and the growing interest in abstraction led to the type of work he was making becoming unfashionable. Kashdan withdrew from public exhibition of his work in 1950 - it was a conscious decision as he wanted to follow his own direction rather than the dictates of commercial considerations. Although he continued to paint and make monotype prints, like many of his generation he was forced by financial necessity to concentrate on his teaching career.
In 1946 he had moved to Devon to take up a teaching post and to set up an art department at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. There he was given a free hand and was also able to keep up with his own work. He taught art history and organised other art classes in the Devon area. An articulate and inspiring teacher, he moved to Surrey in 1951 to teach at Guildford School of Art. In 1953 he became Head of the Design and Fine Art Department, and later Head of General Studies and Art History. In 1968 there was a student sit-in at Guildford School of Art. Kashdan, who had pioneered a radical education programme, supported the students alongside other staff members. Over forty of the staff were sacked, although Kashdan was later re-instated in another post. In 1970, Kashdan was featured in Magnus Magnussen's BBC Television programme, Cause For Concern, which focussed on the Guildford sit-in. Kashdan moved on to Epsom School of Art in 1972 until he retired from teaching in 1982.
In 1989 England & Co held his first one-man exhibition for almost forty years, a retrospective of his paintings and monotypes from 1940 to 1955 curated by Jane England. The British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings recognised the significance of this 'missing link' in the history of British printmaking, and acquired a substantial collection of his work from the gallery. Some of these works were later included in the major exhibition (and book of the same title), Avant-Garde British Printmaking 1914-1960 at the British Museum in 1990. In 1991 he held a second exhibition at England & Co of monotypes produced from 1941 to1991.