LONDON — Just over a decade after fleeing Nazi persecution in his native Warsaw for the safety of Britain in 1940, Expressionist artist Josef Herman established himself as a significant figure in contemporary British art.
Herman is best known for his magnificent, tender images of working people and their surroundings: coal miners, fishermen and farm laborers — particularly from Ystradgynlais, a mining village in south Wales where he lived for over 10 years starting in 1943. Many of these paintings are currently being exhibited in east London at the Flowers Gallery, in “Journey,” the first major exhibition of Herman’s work since 2011.
The exhibition runs through January 25, 2020, as part of part of Insiders Outsiders, a nationwide arts festival celebrating refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and their contribution to British culture, reflects Herman’s artistic, emotional and physical journey throughout his long career. It looks from his vibrant recollections of the past to more political, humanitarian and contemplative images, and includes many works from private collections that have not been seen in public since the 1950s.
Herman’s political views were manifested in his work in a variety of ways, says his son, writer David Herman.
“He was always a supporter of the left, and a number of important political issues [showed through his work]. I think the paintings of the miners, for example, were very political and were taken up as that, so they attracted a certain kind of left-wing audience to his work,” says David Herman.
Later on, Herman painted a large picture of the Aldermaston marches — the first major marching demonstrations for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) — and subsequently, a picture of the Greenham Common women who protested against the storing of nuclear weapons at the Royal Air Force Greenham Common base.
The exhibition starts by focusing on Herman’s early works which, “Journey” curator Isabel Bingley says, were painted during a time of personal and political turmoil — the invasion of Poland, the outbreak of World War II, and Herman’s move to the UK via Brussels and France.
Herman was initially sent to Glasgow and it was there that he produced colorful, exuberant memories of Jewish life in Warsaw. He painted family and friends in works such as “Jews Dancing,” an almost whirling dervish-like image, and “The Dream,” a nostalgic painting made up of fragments of Herman’s life in Warsaw, which he produced in a style reminiscent of Chagall.
“In Warsaw, Josef shared a flat with his extended family and talked about the pleasure of having your own corner, a space to watch from,” Bingley says. “I would posit that, in part, this work was the artist recreating the feeling of that time, looking out of the window of his flat to the busy, bustling street.”
Herman described “blue as the color of dream and nostalgia,” and the color is always present in images that recollect his Polish Jewish past, says Bingley. Typically, it dominates in “The Dream,” as it does in “The Letter,” where the sitter holds a letter, captioned in Yiddish, “And only I am thinking of you, sweet soul. Longing is greater than the world and deeper than our well. Do you remember our brown well?”
But these sentimental paintings contrast with anguished images of wartime refugees and pogroms such as the cold, brutal looking “Transit Officer” and “Memory of a Pogrom,” where a large figure dominates the frame, bent over, clutching a baby. In the distance, houses are being ravaged by fire under blue-gray skies. “Mother and Child Fleeing” is a similar image, but set at night. The fear in the mother’s eyes is devastatingly palpable.
“The early work is deeply emotionally charged,” says Bingley. “Figures are painted with great vitality and movement and seem to have a transcendental quality, representing the artist’s remembered world that no longer existed.”
In 1942, Herman was notified by the Red Cross that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. The loss, and his move to Wales, contributed to a change in subject matter, style and tone as he turned to paint working men and women, using an earthy, warm palette. The exhibition emphasizes this psychological and artistic shift by devoting the second room to paintings that chronicle this period with works created in Wales, Scotland and Suffolk. Dignified, sometimes solitary, figures are represented with no overt features within their natural landscape, under radiant skies, glowing sunsets or at twilight.
“It was as if the world of his childhood, now destroyed during the Holocaust, had become an impossible subject,” wrote David Herman.
According to Bingley, Herman would wake with the miners in Ystradgynlais in the early hours and sketch them as they walked to work.
“He is honoring those he paints as an outsider allowed to observe the community,” she says. “In Herman’s book, ‘Notes from a Welsh Diary,’ he says, ‘I stayed on because here I found ALL I required. I arrived a stranger for a fortnight. The fortnight became eleven years.’”
He was drawn to the community, both ideologically and practically. Factoring into his move to Ystradgynlais were Herman’s strong left-leaning political views, says David Herman. “The other thing was, he had very little money. Living in a small mining village in south Wales was incredibly cheap.”
Later drawings and paintings include more domestic scenes, such as “Farmer with Family” and “Man and Woman at the Fence.” The last room also shows a selection of African wooden figurines from his collection, started after the encouragement of his friend, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who was also a passionate collector. In the end, Herman had about 700-800 figures, and these increasingly influenced his art in the 1970s and ’80s, says David Herman.
Although the senior Herman was not religious, says David Herman, Jankel Adler, his close friend who had also escaped prewar Poland to Glasgow, was very interested in Judaism and gave Herman two gifts. One was a painting, “Orphans,” which depicts the two of them — both of whom lost their families during the Holocaust — and the other was a prayer shawl, which is exhibited here. These presents were given pride of place in every studio he ever had, says David Herman.
He adds that his father never spoke about his past. “As a child, you pick up very quickly the sense that there are certain areas that you just don’t go, and that was certainly the case,” says David Herman.
“I never spoke to him about what happened to his family, I never asked him questions. That not withstanding, he was remarkably good company, very generous, very gregarious, somebody that all kinds of people really enjoyed spending time with. He got on very well with the local people in Ystradgynlais, as well as he did with Jewish refugee intellectuals and artists in London,” David Herman says.
The trauma of losing his family never left Herman. Monica Bohm-Duchen, Herman’s biographer (and founder and creative director of Insiders Outsiders), wrote that he almost always avoided explicitly tragic subject matter. Yet, she wrote, his conviction that “the pain of living must never be too far from artistic expression,” is largely what “imbues his art with such profound humanity.”