Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44 at the Ben Uri Gallery

By Iyke Onodugo | 04 November 2011
a painted portrait of a man with short hair and a goatee beard
Josef Herman, Portrait of Unidentified Man (With Red Beard), 1940© Estate of Josef Herman
Exhibition: Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-1944 at the Ben Uri Gallery, London until January 12 2011.

Josef Herman (1911 - 2000) was a uniquely passionate artist. A realist painter born in Warsaw, he lost most of his family to the Holocaust, but still went on to form an important part of the generation of Eastern European Jewish artists who emigrated to escape oppression and establish themselves in Britain.

The Ben Uri’s exhibition charts an arc of creativity through Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow and London between 1938-44 – a tumultuous six-year journey across a Europe fissured by the pandemic of genocidal anti-Semitism.

a painted portrait of an elderly organ grinder with an owl
Josef Herman, The Organ Grinder, c.1940-1941.© Estate of Josef Herman
It is therefore both a testament to a traumatic experience and a survey of a body of work that is intricate and experimental and that boasts the most striking and imaginative use of colour.

The exhibition also offers the chance to see his works from Brussels; a series compelling oils, gouache and temperas influenced by the Flemish Expressionist Constant Permeke. There are also many pieces from the series ‘Memory of Memories’, which are intense and agonizing sketches of his early childhood prompted by the discovery in 1944 of the loss of his entire family in the Holocaust.

This intensity and experimentation is something shared by many Jewish émigré artists of the period and pieces on show from Herman’s contemporaries include fellow Polish émigré Jankel Adler, and the Estonian-born, Glasgow-based sculptor Benno Schotz.

Together with another colleague and contemporary, the famous Scottish colourist John Duncan Fergusson, these Glasgow based artists were integral parts of the wartime Glasgow art scene.

an abstract painting of a figure emerging from a fire with a baby
Joseph Herman, Warsaw (Ghetto) is Burning (April 19) 1943, 1943.© Estate of Josef Herman
But it was another country that really captured the imagination of Herman. The exhibition concludes in mid 1944 when he came across the little Welsh mining town of Ystradgynlais, a discovery which changed the direction of his work and the course of his life.

Herman spent 11 years in Ystradgynlais. He had always had an affinity with working people and the peasantry and while living in Wales he began painting local mine workers as his subjects. In Britain they are among his most famous and popular works and his iconic painting Miners, a mural commission for the Festival of Britain, is now held in the permanent collection of the Glynn Vivian Gallery.

In the catalogue which accompanies the exhibition are contributions from Herman’s biographer, Monica Bohm-Duchen, as well as Professor Jerzy Malinowski, Nanny Schrijvers, Douglas Hall, the artist’s son, David Herman, Ben Uri’s head of Curatorial Services, Rachel Dickson and the curator Sarah MacDougall.

This exhibition is taking place as part of Ben Uri’s continuing exploration of the works of émigré artists.

More paintings from the exhibition:

a painting of a group of men in Medieval Norman style headwear and clothes
Josef Herman, Purimspiele, 1943.© Estate of Josef Herman
a drawing of two peasants with a pipe and a fork
Josef Herman, Scene from Polish Life.© Estate of Josef Herman
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