Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age
Landscapes of Humanity
From 1957 to 1988, Golahny developed a series of images that explore how the human figure expresses emotional responses to current world events, in particular the threat of nuclear catastrophe. The atomic bomb, developed in part at the University of Chicago during Golahny’s study there, permitted people to cause unprecedented destruction. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on which the bomb was detonated in 1945, permanently trouble human memory and imagination. Golahny witnessed the horror at a distance but was deeply disturbed by the images of the explosions and ensuing suffering.
Believing that art should respond to natural and man-made disaster, Golahny began drafting human figures responding to nuclear warfare with shock, fear, and hope. The inception of the series is rooted in two woodcuts in which the artist renders thinkers and sufferers in the gloomy post-war world, Thoughts on Man #1 and Thoughts on Man #2 (not pictured), dated 1957. These large, vertical pine-wood prints were cut boldly with gouging tools; they were hand-printed by rubbing a wooden spoon upon the paper on the inked block. This accounts for the tonal variations in the print itself. The jagged contour of the wood and the gouges into the woodblock convey a raw expressiveness. This roughness in the delineation is akin to the works of Max Beckmann, which Golahny admired. In Thoughts on Man #1, one sorrowful head, perhaps the artist’s own, oversees the rest of the composition, creating an umbrella of sympathy for figures variously despairing and hoping.
In 1962, Golahny completed a multi-block color woodcut initially titled Thoughts on Man #3 and later retitled Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age (here retaining its original title). Three large heads express a range of reaction to tragedy: the resolute top head, looking backward, recalls past perseverance; the mild middle head confronts the future with concern, his head furrowed with worry; the gaping lower head stares into an abyss. On the left, a woman’s face that strongly recalls that of the artist looks out with an ambiguous expression. She may be seen both as a powerless bystander and as an optimistic consoler to the viewer. Recognizing the woman’s face as the artist’s inclines the viewer to see her as offering hope, since Golahny saw artists as creating order and meaning amidst chaos. The blue, green, yellow and red that layer the black framework enliven the somber content. As in Thoughts on Man #1, many figures react to tragedy while one figure offers consolation.
This print signaled a shift in the artist's printmaking and painting techniques and materials. This was the final color woodcut of five Golahny essayed, and the only one that would belong to the series Landscape of Man. From this time on, Golahny would concentrate on intaglio and wood engraving on boxwood. She traded scraping on roughly cut wood to etching and engraving on copper, techniques that allowed for great control. In painting, she traded a thickly loaded brush for a thin and linear application of oil paint.
The development of Golahny’s workspace informed the development of her approach to prints and paintings. From 1954 to 1967, the artist had a studio in the lower level of her Newton home that served for painting and printmaking. In 1966, the house was expanded to include a windowed garage designed to serve as Golahny’s painting studio. The lower studio then became exclusively a printmaking workshop. Until she acquired a Meeker-McPhee Press in 1968, the artist printed intaglio on a heavy manual press that limited the size of the plate. For large plates, such as the Tree Roots intaglio of 1960 (15 x 23 inches; not yet pictured) she printed in George Lockwood’s Impressions Workshop in Boston. Once she acquired the Meeker-McPhee Press, Golahny could print large prints at home. To test the capabilities of this light-weight, motorized press, Golahny experimented with a monumental two-plate intaglio etching Landscape of Man in the Nuclear Age, completed in 1968 and printed in very few impressions in blue-green ink (not currently pictured). Measuring 18 by 36 inches, this work was of the largest size that the press could handle. But the two-plate composition was unwieldy. In 1994, the artist cut down the larger of the two plates and printed from it a red and blue intaglio, Landscape of Man. As is clear from this belatedly-pulled print, the original 1968 work established the composition of one strong arm embracing figures on the image’s right, and inaugurated grounding the image in one face at the bottom center.
Until 1988, Golahny created variations on the landscape of humanity in the media of intaglio, painting, wood engraving, pastel, and copper engraving. These later images refine the structure of the 1968 intaglio. The artist wrote:
“These works are structured on a central column of three heads with an embracing arm and a shielding hand. The uppermost head with blank eyes is a symbolic construct of humankind’s compliance with destructive forces. Within this series there are various image transformations, but the central head has remained essentially the same—it holds special significance for me. This introverted head with tightly closed eyes cannot tolerate the idea of impending cataclysm. Surrounding the anxious eyes of the lower head are forms suggestive of a nuclear explosion.”
The closed eyes suggest a refusal to confront reality, which, no matter how miserable, demands attention. Willfull ignorance of the world was anathema to the artist.
A copper engraving and a wood engraving from 1981, proceeding from the same general composition, demonstrate the variability of the media. In black ink on white paper, both explore "vital negative space," according to Golahny. The copper engraving exploits controlled incisions while the wood engraving exploits juxtaposition of solid black and white areas. For the copper engraving, the artist began by sketching some forms on the copper, and then cutting into the metal surface with the burin. She described the process in this way: “As soon as a few main concepts were indicated, I printed a proof. Then I etched several tones into the plate with softground in order to establish the main compositional idea [. . .] As these images developed, I scraped away most of the softground tone.” A pen drawing, shown here, demonstrates an intermediate stage in the development of this engraving, but it is not a direct study for it. Indeed, the exact incision of lines into the copper was unplanned, an adventure in itself.
Concluding the series are a group of large oil paintings rendered in unmodulated pigment. Their brilliant colors, appearing newly squeezed from the tube, have a painful intensity that matches the theme. Yet these raw, energetic tones may also convey hope.