Turning tragedy into art

Turning tragedy into art

Local artist’s work on display across the county

Women and Children to the Left by Rose Hertzberg (Photos courtesy George D.H. Hertzberg)
Women and Children to the Left by Rose Hertzberg (Photos courtesy George D.H. Hertzberg)

The despair of dark shadows. Feeble light from a flickering lamp. The sudden urge to run away. Who can know what goes through a woman’s mind as she watches her father glued to the radio in anguish listening to reports of his immediate family and friends being led into the internment camps by the Nazis?

The woman was Rose Hertzberg. She was safely at home in Paterson. Her father, Joe Kalmowitz, an immigrant, knew there was nothing that he could do to help. And the insight into what she was thinking comes from her son, George D. H. Hertzberg, who grew up in Paterson and lives in Norwood.

A not-so-distant memory, that powerful image would inform the Holocaust works of the artist Rose Hertzberg. Those pieces, created throughout the 1960s, are on display at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly until the end of April.

In sharp contrast to the world of European Jews her age, the future seemed both bright and predictable for young Rose Kalmowitz, her son recalls. As a teenager, she studied painting with her uncle Abram Champanier, who was a WPA artist and an illustrator who went on to create children’s wallpaper for Walt Disney. Abe also was friends with Japanese artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi so for a time Rose studied with Kuniyoshi as well as with her uncle.

Mother and Child

She won first place in most art contests that she chose to enter — a path that eventually led to a full art scholarship, putting Rose on the fast track to success.

But hold on. Not so fast. This is the point where Rose’s story, already a very Jewish one, morphs into the story of a woman’s struggle to live her life on her own terms.

Rose’s controlling mother, Pauline, refused to let her follow through with her education. Period. End of story. In fact, her son does not even know the name of the school where she had gotten the scholarship. “The boys can go to college, but girls must stay home and help take care of the store,” her mother said. That’s the way things were done in those days. Rose’s dream of becoming an artist came to a halt.

Rose married her first husband, Irving Harelick, in the late 1930s. Like her mother, he had a very controlling personality. He did not want her spending time with her uncle and his artist friends in Woodstock, Greenwich Village, or God help us, Provincetown. He wanted dinner on the table, not paint on the palette. That wasn’t unusual behavior in a husband at that time, so Rose went along with it. Eventually, she recognized that this was not a good marriage, so even though it was rare at the time, she left her husband. They divorced in 1939.

Street Scene

In 1946 Rose married Walter Hertzberg. Walter was a really nice guy. When Rose came to him one day and said, “I want to be an artist,” he said, “Fine. Go find the best art instructor you can, and I’ll pay for it.” That resulted in the creation of over 4,000 works, some in private collections, museums, and galleries worldwide. Some are in the Montclair Art Museum, and some are in the Smithsonian.

Rose always had a talent for drawing and painting. In the late 1940s, she studied with the pioneering post-impressionist painter Ben Benn. She came to abstraction at the Art Students’ League, but it was through her private studies with Hans Hofmann, the dean of American abstract expressionism, in the late 1950s, that she acquired her special understanding of the discipline.

She made art in a dazzling array of styles and media, usually by choice but at times by chance. In the late 1960s, advanced arthritis and an arm injury made it impossible for her to hold a brush at an upright easel, so she laid huge canvases horizontally across sawhorses, pointing her brush downward and allowing the paint to pool on the flat canvas in thick layers. The result was a striking, unique style of abstraction, with depth and iridescent effects.

Later, when her arm healed, she challenged herself to create art without color, line, or shades of gray, producing stark white-on-white reliefs, three-dimensional multimedia gessoes. She was only 4 feet, 9 inches tall, and some of the works were taller than she was. Her small size did not deter her from making prints in a wide variety of sizes, using a press that would have daunted a weightlifter.

In the Chamber

Foot surgery and later open-heart valve-replacement surgery when she was 81 limited her ability to stand for long periods. Her drive to express and create led her to figure out how to explore new directions in materials, media, and style, developing her new technique of paper collage, art made out of paper itself — all while sitting down.

In her paper collages, abstract shapes in carefully torn, sometimes cut, colored and painted papers were imposed upon each other to provide an illusion of depth as well as subtle and bold contrast of color and form. Later Rose chose to make her own handmade, poured or screened pulp paper.

Rose loved found objects. Over the years, she would find an interesting piece of driftwood on the beach — and she’d use it. She produced a variety of effects from familiar and abstract sculpted forms, creating sheets incorporating dried plants and other objects found in nature as well as man-made textiles and materials. These pioneering low-relief constructions opened new vistas in collage.

She continued to pursue printmaking, pastel, watercolor, and ceramic sculpture. Rose often made works in a series of 10 to 15 pieces, varying a common theme and common materials. In her final years, she spent most of her time with collage, furthering her work in poured paper.

Walter and Rose lived in Ramsey, and Rose was active both socially and professionally. The Hertzbergs were among the founders of the Ramsey Synagogue. She taught art in her home studio for years and was a founding member of the New Jersey Modern Artists’ Guild. She also was a member of other important artists associations. She was very proud of her membership in ALTRUSA, the professional women’s service group.

Knowing how difficult life can be for a female artist, Rose created the “Salute to Women in the Arts” organization now run by Fran Hertzberg, her daughter-in-law. The two requirements for membership are being an artist and a woman. If you or someone you know would like more information, email Fran at Hertzberg1@verizon.net.

Knowing Rose’s journey as an artist and Jewish woman can give you an appreciation for her work and a window into understanding it.

Rose Hertzberg’s Holocaust exhibit is up at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly through April 30. There is a one woman show of her work at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack through April 25. Two works are at the Pine Library in Fair Lawn through April 30. Two paintings are on display at HackensackPAC through June 3. 

read more: