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Published 06/01/2020 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Josef Herman: Journey

As part of the nationwide arts festival Insiders/Outsiders, this retrospective of the Jewish émigré artist brings to life his suffering and his search for a common humanity, epitomised in his paintings of Welsh miners returning home against the twilight sun

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London
15 November 2019 – 25 January 2020


I don’t know what I will be
A poet or a painter
I don’t know whether I will speak
Through poems or paintings.

I like pictures in poetry
I like poetry in pictures
I don’t know what I will be
A poet or a painter.

Perhaps I will never be
A poet or a painter
And with unwritten poems
I will pass through life, a living picture.

(Josef Herman, age 12)

Born in Warsaw in 1911, Josef Herman, the subject of this two-floor retrospective, comprising works drawn from a career spanning half a century, was the son of an illiterate Jewish cobbler. He grew up in a predominantly Jewish working-class neighbourhood and had little formal education. Nevertheless, he was a voracious reader and well versed in what was going on in the wider art world.

In 1938, Herman moved to Brussels to escape the onslaught of nazism. From there, he fled via France to Britain – first to Glasgow, then to London, then to Ystradgynlais in south Wales, then back to London, then to Suffolk, and ultimately to London again – where he remained until he died in 2000, age 89. Herman’s choice of the Belgian capital as his first port of call was significant, given the decision of so many other émigré artists to head to the artistic capital of Paris. As his son, David, writes in his contribution to a catalogue published by Ben Uri Gallery in 2014: “That generation of Jewish refugees, especially those from central and eastern Europe, divided into those who were by temperament insiders (for example, GR Elton and Isaiah Berlin) and those who were permanent outsiders. Herman was in every sense an outsider: he was from eastern Europe, passionately involved with Jewish culture and soaked in Yiddish writing, politically on the left. Above all, his artistic formation could hardly have been more remote from the central British traditions.”1

Indeed, this exhibition at Flowers Gallery, the first major showing of Herman’s work since 2011, which includes many rarely seen paintings from private collections, is part of a year-long, nationwide arts festival, Insiders/Outsiders, celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture (March 2019 – March 2020).

Josef Herman. The Gamblers, Brussels, 1938. Gouache on paper laid on board, 19 x 24 cm (7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in). Glasses Collection. © The Estate of Josef Herman, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

A central question to this exhibition and to Herman’s life and work in general is whether such a genre as “Jewish art” exists, and, if so, how it might look. This was a subject on which the artist lectured, and certainly his early work focuses quite specifically on the Jewish community with which he surrounded himself. This exhibition, for example, opens with The Gamblers, Brussels (1938), a scene of prewar conviviality, with the men all still at home, and relative freedom, even though Herman himself was already in exile. An affinity to the style and motifs of Marc Chagall is certainly to be discerned, as, for example, in the skewed perspective and physiological representation of Jews in Jews Dancing (1940) and the cock and small figures beneath, seen through a window, in The Dream (c1940-42). A catalogue from Roland, Browse and Delbanco Old and Modern Paintings, from September 1946, included in a vitrine upstairs, is open on a page that additionally states: “Then he described a world full of passionate and glowing colour where fairytale and reality mixed as in Chagall’s work. This kinship was not surprising, for both artists have their root in the eastern ghetto.”

Herman’s Jewishness remained significant throughout his life and the vitrine also displays a tallit (Jewish shawl) gifted to him in the 1940s by his close friend, the Polish artist Jankel Adler, which remained in his studio until he died.

Josef Herman. Jews Dancing, 1940. Gouache on paper laid on board, 53 x 71 cm (20 7/8 x 28 in). Glasser Collection. © The Estate of Josef Herman, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

Certainly his early experiences also play out in his mind and his work to the bitter end. In a wall text quote, taken from his diary,2 Herman speaks of depicting “a memory of memories”. Frequently, those who have suffered trauma re-experience it in just this way – as if through a lens, as a secondary, rather than direct, memory.  Many of Herman’s works produced in Glasgow between 1940-43, years he described as primarily ones of drawing – “even for the paintings of that time I used a technique very much akin to drawing” – recall such traumatic memories. Mother and Child Fleeing (1942) – effective in its black-and-white sketching on blue – focuses in on the eyes and eyebrows of the two faces, expressing more than enough through just these simple features, as well as the tight clasp of the mother’s arms and outsized hands around her child – echoing the sketches and sculptures of German artist Käthe Kollwitz. The blue itself also works to capture the mood of sadness and uncertainty.

However, 1942 was also the year in which Herman received the news (whether before or after the painting of this picture, I do not know) that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw ghetto following the Nazi invasion. Despite suffering a breakdown, he kept working, but his style and subject matter changed for ever. “Not immediately, but over a very short period of time, he stopped painting and drawing Jewish subjects,” wrote his son. “They became impossible.”3

Josef Herman. Mother and Child Fleeing, 1942. Oil and tempura on board, 53 x 74 cm (20 7/8 x 29 1/8 in). Private collection. © The Estate of Josef Herman, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

After a brief spell in London, in 1944 Herman moved to the mining village of Ystradgynlais. Here he reinvented himself as an artist, discovered a new subject matter and palette. In his diary he describes how: “Then, unexpectedly, as though from nowhere, a group of miners stepped on to the bridge. For a split second their heads appeared against the full body of the sun, as against a yellow disc – the whole image was not unlike an icon depicting the saints with their haloes. With the light around them, the silhouettes of the miners were almost black. With rabid steps they crossed the bridge and like frightened cats tore themselves away from one another, each going their own way. The magnificence of this scene overwhelmed me.”4

He continues: “For weeks I wandered here on the hills, in the little streets, looking at the landscape, looking at walls and at men, at pits from far and near, sketching and talking to miners on the surface and underground, at work and at rest, studying their movements and their appearance. This was a way of exercising my faculties of concentration, of clearing my mind; a way of piercing the thick cloud of insignificant incident which enshrouds every new reality.”5

Josef Herman. Miners, 1968. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 60.5 cm (17 7/8 x 23 7/8 in). © The Estate of Josef Herman, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

His palette took on the gold, copper-red and orange of the earth, but also of the sunset – a time often depicted in his works, when, as described above, the miners were returning home. His figures of this period became even more illustrative, their features even more generic, with exaggerated jowls and geometric faces. Both Miners (1968) and Two Miners (1950), for example, echo Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill (1913), not because they are mutilated, but because of this geometric, anonymous aspect. In Related Twilights. Notes from an Artist’s Diary, Herman includes a chapter on Epstein in which he describes “his blunt humanity, his pathos, his lack of reserve, his unashamed wearing of his heart on his sleeve … Whatever he achieved in style was by way of searching for a strong and exact expression.”6 Herman, too, could be characterised thus, particularly as an artist defined by his ability to capture “a strong and exact expression”.

Josef Herman. Two Miners, 1950. Oil on canvas, 66 x 76 cm (26 x 29 7/8 in) framed. Private collection. © The Estate of Josef Herman, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

There are reflections of other artists, too, with the empty expression and clasped hands (sisyphean effort and mundaneness met with a glimmer of hope?) in David (Head of a Miner) (1946) again capturing Kollwitz, and the large hands and features in Seated Miner (1949) suggestive of Picasso. With his move to Wales, Herman left behind his specifically Jewish subject matter and moved on to something much more universal, embodied by his toiling men and women, lacking any distinguishing features.

David Herman describes his father’s miner figures as “intensely solitary, withdrawn from the world,”7 but this isn’t always the case. Playing Cards, Ystradgynlais (1948/49), for example, is reminiscent of The Gamblers, Brussels, in its recreation of a sense of conviviality – postwar, in a new home – and Man and Woman at the Fence (undated) similarly depicts carefree chattering, akin to his earlier gossipers in the streets. The closeknit, working-class community of Ystradgynlais welcomed Herman into its fold, bringing back memories of the Warsaw of his childhood. As he describes in his diary: “Familiarity breaks the ice of strangeness. ‘You’re no stranger here,’ I was told the very day I arrived. A day later I was addressed as Joe, and soon I was nicknamed Joe-bach.”8 He also recalls how, on arrival and his first sight of the bridge, sun and miners, he “felt [his] inner emptiness filling”.9

Herman made repeated attempts to rebuild his family. He had a stillborn child with his first wife, Catriona, and a son and daughter with his second wife, Nini. The daughter, Sara, however, died in infancy, triggering another breakdown and the end of his successful period as an artist. The following year, he and Nini adopted another daughter, Becci. Children continue to appear in his paintings, as, for example, View from Ystradgynlais Bridge (1948), where a woman on the righthand side of the composition clutches her child. The effects of trauma and tragedy also permeate, with the Roland, Browse and Delbanco Old and Modern Paintings catalogue further noting: “Herman’s art is characterised by a psychological intensity which he shares with those painters for whom Rembrandt will always remain the supreme spokesman.”

The Ben Uri publication closes with an interview between Herman and a 10-year-old girl, in 1998, two years before his death. “You’re famous for your paintings of Welsh miners,” she states. “What do they represent to you?” His answer is simple: “A human presence – a general humanity.”10 Perhaps it is this move from his early painting of specific Jewishness to that of a more general humanity that the “journey” in the title of this exhibition refers to; the pass[ing] through life, a living picture that the 12-year-old Herman was destined to undergo. This journey, this living picture, is captured here, both in images and words, as a poignant snapshot of a very moving legacy.

1. David Herman, As Though From Nowhere: Josef Herman. In: Refiguring the 50s, exhibition catalogue published by Ben Uri, 2014, page 106.
2. Josef Herman, Related Twilights. Notes from an Artist’s Diary, published by Seren, 1975, page 66.
3. David Herman, op cit, page 108.
4. Josef Herman, op cit , page 73.
5. Josef Herman, op cit , page 82.
6. Josef Herman, op cit , pages 146-47.
7. David Herman, op cit , page 116.
8. Josef Herman, op cit , page 83.
9. Josef Herman, op cit , page 73.
10. David Herman, op cit , page 112.

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