Playing with Boy’s Toys

This week’s article covers a new exhibit opening at Rutgers Univervsity for the artist Jolan Gross-Bettelheim (1900-1972).  While her work is not the usual for this column, I found her pieces to be of a personal interest.  I am especially intrigued with women artists and their portrayal of the world around them.  An artist of the female persuasion has plenty of opposition in life lined up against her, but to rise above the demands of marriage, motherhood, maintaining a home, to make a name in the male dominated art world is an achievement that deserves recognition.

Jolan Gross-Bettelheim, born in Hungary in 1900, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest,  Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, and the Academic fur bildende Kunst in Berlin.  She married a Hungarian/American, psychiatrist Frigyes Bettelheim in 1925, moving to Cleveland, Ohio where she studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Bridge, 1935

Under the High Level Bridge, 1936

Submitting prints to the annual contest sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Jolan won several prizes from 1928-1937. During the Depression, she exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, the Library of Congress, and many other museums nationwide. Bettelheim created 12 prints for the Graphics Workshop of the WPA Federal Arts Project, 1935-6, producing her most groundbreaking works of urban, industrial and machine age subjects. Scant information is available regarding her personal life other than she was a member of the John Reed Club, named for the journalist played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds, I could find no photographs or image of her person. The small exhibit at Rutgers is the only reflection of her contribution to the art world, and of her personal beliefs.

Queensboro Bridge, 1937

Harbour II, 1948

Harbour II, 1948

Betteleheim’s drawings reflect the growth of the industrial age around her, each page covered with the sharp lines of perspective, her designs portraying influences of art deco and architecture, obviously influenced by Russian Constructivism, themes of world peace and industrial development abound. These pages, all filled to the edge with incident; human figures, machinery, cables, smokestacks, gas towers; reproduced in repetitive, staggered registers, all the elements blending into a powerful pattern.

Bridge, 1935

Blast Furnace

Jolan moved with her husband to Queens, New York City in 1938. She did not exhibit again until 1942 with a one-woman show of her pastels hosted by Durand-Ruel Galleries.

Assembly Line, 1940

Bridge Cables II

Prompted by the death of her husband and the anti-communist political climate of McCarthyism, the artist returned to Hungary in 1956. Her home country had politically changed hands between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and she arrived just one month before an attempted overthrow of the Soviet system there. Jolan’s pro-communist views made her an outsider in her own country, living out the rest of her days withdrawn from her art and semi-reclusive. There is no evidence she ever made prints again, dying in Budapest in 1972.

Bettelheim created a total of 40 prints in her lifetime. Most were not editioned but printed as proofs only and no catalog yet exists of her work.  But these few pieces share the enlightened view of a woman during WWII and the industrial development of the United States.

Beneath the Bridge

Untitled, 1945


Skyscrapers, 1950

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University currently is showing Jolan Gross Bettelheim: An American Printmaker in an Age of Progress through July 31. The museum carries the most extensive collection of Gross-Bettelheim prints in the world, donated by Miklos Muller of Rockefeller University and Jan S. Keithly, both collectors of Hungarian art.


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