Friday, December 31, 2010

Bertha Urdang

Bertha Urdang was a dear and important friend of mine for a few years before I left New York City. In 1994 I flew to Israel to visit her. I had not seen Bertha for three years, already in her late 80's, Bertha maintained the same defining spark and vitality I had come to know when first we met. Bertha's keen eye shaped the clear and sharp visual vocabulary of her gallery. There was always time to speak of art, attend concerts and have tea. After all these years, I think of her often and the tremendous art she represented. Bertha generously gave me my first two solo shows.

Artist, Joshua Neustein tells the story well:

She was a ...mixture of the 'English lady, polite, defensive and the pioneer, always ready for a spat, like a cat with a permanently arched back... When a dinner invitation wasn't as forthcoming as she felt it should be Bertha exploded and abruptly became the lonely war widow who'd sacrificed everything for her nation, her people, ideals and who nobody cared about...She thought everyone should share her awe and dedication to art and had no patience with people who didn't quite measure up. Berated those who came to her gallery with what she perceived as the wrong attitude and informed them that "she wasn't selling vegetables" and they might lower their voices and open their eyes and minds.

Bertha Urdang was born in England at an undisclosed date at the beginning of the 20th Century. She went to school at North London Collegiate and grew up as a Fabian socialist and a Zionist, which at that time was not contradictory. She studied at the University of Manchester and the Sorbonne. She came to Israel, married, and settled in Bet Hakerem, a peripheral neighborhood of Jerusalem.

In 1948, her husband died, leaving her a widow, the mother of three daughters, Rina, Daphna, and Miri. She plunged into, the promotion of Israeli art. Bertha's art dealings, exploits and failures reached folklore proportions. "Rina" was the name of her first gallery on Shlom Zion Hamalka Street, near the Central Post Office in Jerusalem, which she managed with a partner, and took two months a year to go to America to spread the word and sell the work. In 1966 she separated from her partner over an ideological difference: "He loved money, I loved art," is how she summed it up.

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