Berta Rosenbaum Golahny
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Berta Rosenbaum Golahny (February 7, 1925 – November 4, 2005) was an American painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work blended abstract with realistic representations. Subjects of Golahny's work include urban life, the human face and body, children, consciousness, the Big Bang, the Cosmos, the Holocaust, the Nuclear threat, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the biblical account of the creation of the world.
Golahny was born into a Jewish, socially-conscious, cultured family in Detroit, Michigan. Her immigrant parents, Fannie Henkin Rosenbaum (1889–1953, b. in Belarus) and Gedaliah Rosenbaum (1889–1985, b. in Wlodova, Poland), imparted to their three children their faith in individual and group freedom, social justice, and concern for the needy. Fanny and Gedaliah also transmitted their esteem for appreciating and creating art. As a young child, Golahny began to draw while watching her father design wrought-iron pieces for the company he founded, Liberty Ironworks, some of whose ornamental gates and railings remain standing in Detroit.
At Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, a magnet school for the gifted, Golahny concentrated in painting. In 1943-4 Golahny attended the Art Students League of New York, having received a National Scholastic Scholarship. There George Grosz encouraged her drawing and French artist Ossip Zadkine introduced her to sculpture. One of the pieces she created under Zadkine is of two mangled hands wrestling with each other, titled Struggle. Another is a woman’s naturalistic, contemplative head. Each of these works indicates a theme on which much of Golahny’s later work would focus: the hands indicate Golahny’s interest in resistance to suffering; the head attests to her fascination with consciousness and imagination.
Golahny continued her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. After receiving her Bachelor's in Fine Art from the Art Institute in 1947, Golahny completed her studies at the University of Iowa, from which she received a Master's in Fine Art in 1950. At Iowa, she studied printmaking under Mauricio Lasansky, art history under William S. Heckscher, and painting under Eugene Ludins. Her thesis painting, The Resurrection, was awarded the Painting Prize by juror Ben Shahn. In 1951, she was awarded a fellowship from The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. While at Iowa, she married Yehuda Golahny, an engineering student in Detroit. When Yehuda began to pursue a Master’s of Science in Electrical Engineering at MIT (class of 1954), the couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. After two years, they moved to Newton, Massachusetts, where they settled.
Berta Golahny participated in the art world nationally and locally. From 1959 to 2001, she taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her students, accomplished professionals in their own fields, took her painting classes on Monday nights, often continually for years. She exhibited nationally and internationally in several hundred juried and invitational shows. Today her work is held in private collections throughout America, France, and Israel, and in museums, among them the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Wichita Art Museum, and the E. J. Pratt Library at the University of Toronto.
A prolific painter and occasional sculptor, Golahny excelled in the traditional media of etching, wood engraving, and woodcut. She experimented with monotype, with various ways of biting the plate, and with electric tools to incise lines upon zinc and copper plates. The term that describes her best is peintre-graveur, coined around 1800 to refer to artists who were both painters and printmakers. The foremost of these was Rembrandt van Rijn, who set a standard in printmaking for the rich tonal blacks that artists ever since have attempted to emulate. Golahny, in her etchings, achieved that tonal richness.
Golahny found inspiration in the relationship between the individual and others and between the individual with the universe beyond Earth. She explored both in many works, including a series of portraits of accomplished people: Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Jean Sibelius, Louis Armstrong, and Aaron Copland. Her portrait of Copland demonstrates how she incorporated words and the cosmos into an image of an individual: inscribed above Copland’s head are the composer’s own words: “I must create in order to know myself.” Below are the Earth and its moon as seen from Space, and a horizontal bar carrying another Copland statement, “The world knows itself through its artists.”
In addition to Zadkine and Rembrandt, artists with whom Golahny found affinity include Max Beckmann, Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Nicolas de Staël. Taken together, these artists have strong expressive qualities in the rendering of figures and nature. The saturated colors of Marc and Kandinsky provided her with examples of brilliant and pure pigments; the playful creatures and inventions of Klee provided models of fantasy. Beckmann’s paintings of humanity under duress reinforced Golahny’s own efforts to represent suffering.
Golahny’s earliest work reflects city life in Detroit, New York City, and Chicago: people on buses or trains, workers in factories, and children at play. She responded to global tragedy, such as World War II, the Korean War, Biafra, the threat of nuclear war, and recent terrorism. She portrayed the realities of these tragedies, often modeling an image on a photograph from the New York Times, and depicted also the imagined consequences of these tragedies. She rendered the earth's landscape, as for instance the stunning mountains of Sinai, the knobby olive trees of Israel, and the contorted roots of a Massachusetts oak. And she explored in her art what lies beyond the earth, in the wider realm of the cosmos: nebulae, galaxies, and black holes. Each theme she approached in various media, to achieve diverse pictorial and expressive effects.
Golahny worked in series. One series, begun around 1964 with a multi-block color woodcut, was titled Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age. She continued this series in intaglio, painting, wood engraving, and copper engraving, completing it in 1988. What grounds each image in the series is a central column of three faces, the middle face shutting his eyes tight so as not to see the destruction around him. Several images in the series also feature an embracing arm to the right side of the column, shielding figures from harm.
A visit to a mid-west state fair inspired an intaglio print of 1949 titled Children at the Fair: The Ride. Golahny reprised this composition of a whirligig (a central pole with carts swinging from it) in a 1987 woodcut and in several subsequent large paintings.
Inspired by early publications on nebulae and black holes, Golahny began the Space series in 1980. In dozens of paintings she recreated the convulsive and bubbling activity of distant galaxies, modeling her images on the photographs and reports of cosmic exploration in the archives of the Harvard College Observatory. She also painted evocative layerings of an imagined passage through space and time, and fantastic semi-formed creatures that exist in a life outside of our experience.
The Being and Becoming series concerns the expansion of the universe since the Big Bang. Works in this series represent the continuous creative processes of the universe, a process that culminates in the emergence of the human being as a cognitive individual. Several pieces are structured around the shape of a “V,” which symbolizes outward movement from the initial Big Bang. Inspired by this series and other paintings, Boston-based musicians Paul and Rosalie DiCrescenzo wrote a four-movement score to accompany a slide-show of the images, titled The Watchers and the Watched. This was performed with support from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts in 1995. And it was performed again, at the Newton Free Library in December 2006, as part of a commemoration of Golahny’s life and work. Golahny died in November 2005.
Throughout her seven decades of work, Golahny explored the place of humanity in the infinite universe, and expressed empathy for people caught up in historical catastrophe. Her response to the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 was to paint two large canvases in a series called The Striving. In the second painting, her last, ladder-like towers lean but do not fall, surrounded on one side by the thoughtful, diverse faces of those affected by September 11, and on the other by sufferers of past tragedies. Next to the towers, at the painting’s center, an African American basketball player leaps to make a basket, touching a haloed, globe-like ball to which the towers seem to point.
- Ackerman, Jerry. "Suddenly, Monday Nights Without Berta as a Teacher Steps Aside." The Boston Globe 19 August 2001.
- Golahny, Berta. "How I Came To Paint The Crab Nebula: The Development Of Cosmic Themes In My Oil Paintings." Leonardo: International Quarterly of the Arts and Sciences 23.4 (1990).
- '"Art/music presentation 'The Watchers and the Watched' at library." Newton Tab 13 December 2006.
- Stickgold, Emma. "Berta Rosenbaum Golahny; taught art and also created it; at 80" [obituary]. The Boston Globe 7 November 2005.
- Jerry Ackerman, "Suddenly, Monday Nights Without Berta as a Teacher Steps Aside," The Boston Globe, Aug. 19, 2001.
- Dr. Alicia Faxon, "Commentary on 'How I Came To Paint The Crab Nebula,'" Leonardo, 24.1, 1991.
- Berta Golahny, "How I Came To Paint The Crab Nebula: The Development Of Cosmic Themes In My Oil Paintings," Leonardo: International Quarterly of the Arts and Sciences, 23.4, 1990.
- Donald Judd, Complete Writings, 1959-1975: Gallery Reviews, Book reviews, Articles, Letters to the editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975, p. 4.
- Stephanie Rauschenbusch, "Three Visions: Juliani Gallery, Massachusetts Bay Community College Wellesley Hills, MA, July- August 1987 (Selma Bromberg, Berta Golahny and Ellen Milan)" Women Artists News, Vol. 12, Midmarch Associates, 1987.
- Emma Stickgold, "Berta Rosenbaum Golahny; taught art and also created it; at 80" [obituary], The Boston Globe, November 7, 2005.
- '"Art/music presentation 'The Watchers and the Watched' at library," Newton Tab, Dec. 13, 2006.