Artists From The Edge
Evening, Ystradgynlais, Josef Herman, 1948. © estate of Josef Herman. DACS 2020, Tate Gallery
Josef Herman (1911-2000) was born in Poland. He is best known for his images of coal miners, fishermen and farm workers from Wales, Scotland and Suffolk, capturing the dignity of ordinary people and the quiet beauty in everyday life.
The artist’s journey to Ystradgynlais in South Wales was a troubled one. Born to working-class Jewish parents in Warsaw, he trained as a typesetter and graphic designer but later turned to painting. As a young man, he was left-wing and committed to depicting the experiences of Poland’s poor.
His earliest sketches were of workers in city ghettoes and peasants in the Carpathian Mountains. He found much of modern painting, particularly abstraction, frivolous.
In 1938, amid growing anti-Semitism and the threat of war, he moved to Brussels. He would never see his family again.
In 1940 he was displaced to Glasgow, Scotland fleeing the German advance. It was there, two years later, that he discovered his parents and other relatives had been murdered by the Nazis.
Herman channelled his grief into his work, creating vivid ‘memory paintings’ that evoked his childhood and Jewish heritage, along with compositions addressing the horrors of the pogroms.
He then moved in 1943 to London, where he met numerous other European émigrés, such as the Hungarian Michael Peto with whom he became friends.
In 1944 Josef Herman moved to Ystradgynlais, a mining community in South Wales. He became part of the community. He stayed there for more than ten years.
Josef Herman & South Wales
In the Canteen, J. Herman, 1954 . © estate of Joseph Herman, DACS 2020.
‘The nostalgia for my childhood years had burnt itself out and nothing had taken its place,’ he later recalled, ‘except a vague feeling for big forms and a cry within me for a new belief in man’s serenity.’
One painting from this period, in the Ingram Collection, sums up the artist’s struggle. It depicts a woman and child sat side by side: they lean on each other, their heads downturned in an expression of both intimacy and sadness. It is at once a poignant image of Josef Herman yearning for his dead mother; a lament for the plight of millions of refugees; and a symbol of timeless familial love. Herman created it in 1943.
Where to Now? J. Herman. © estate of Josef Herman. DACS 2020. Ingram Collection of Modern Art.
Josef Herman and South Wales.Video Courtesy Tate Galley
Miner with a dog , J.Herman, 1954, ©estate of Josef Herman. Brenock Art Gallery, Scotland.
He painted Welsh miners and other working people. It was as if the world of his childhood, now destroyed during the Holocaust, had become an impossible subject. Instead, he painted a more universal subject: working men and women.
Not only did he find a new subject, but he also found a completely different artistic style. Instead of pen and ink drawings, he moved to rich oils and pastels, glowing sunsets, copper and golden skies, great monumental figures set against a bare landscape.
Herman's central theme the eternal ritual of physical labour. Although his brushwork was always broad, paying little attention to detail, he captured the essence of his sitters, the sacred ritual of work; by concentrating on a single figure, he gave it what he called an "essence of all to capture the universal in the particular - the frieze of life".
His palette was rich, going from luminous reds and glowing oranges to blues of stained glass vividness, strong vibrant yellow and ochre, and the sweeping browns of anthracite coal.
Herman's paintings form a self-sufficient, body of work, a distillation of ideas from sketches, created very slowly, each layer sealed before the next coat of paint was applied. "Drawing is action," he said, "painting is meditation."
This new lyricism and subject matter seemed to speak to the British art world of the 1940s and ‘50s. A huge mural of coal miners (below) was chosen for The Festival of Britain in 1951.
His deep human insight made him a distinguished portraitist, often overlooked. Commissions were rare, and nearly all his sitters were friends, including Arnold Wesker (the only one at the National Portrait Gallery), Leo Abse, Labour Member of Parliament, and Wolf Mankowitz the director.
In moving from Wales to Suffolk and London Herman's approach to art developed. His collection of African wooden tribal sculpture was started after the encouragement of his great friend, Jacob Epstein. His work showed echoes of their simplicity, the elimination of facial features, and the depersonalisation of the figures. In 1985, the Arts Council organised an exhibition with 50 of his drawings accompanied by 50 pieces from his tribal art collection.
Josef Herman died in London in 2000.
Women and Children. j. Herman. 1950. Flowers Gallery.
Mother & Child, J. Herman. 1945, © estate of Josef Herman, Swansea Art Gallery.
Josef Herman in his Studio ©Vince Bevan
Miners (Study for Festival of Britain Mural). J. Herman , National Galleries of Scotland.