Josef Herman – a mini exhibition tour (part one)

One of our current shows tells the story of a journey between four cities, and opens a window on a world which was brutally destroyed in World War II. It is about memory and imagination.

Josef Herman was born in Warsaw in 1911. This exhibition follows the journey of the young artist, starting aged 27, and the journey of exploration which he made in his art when at its most experimental and colourful. In six tumultuous years, Herman made the journey from his home in Warsaw for Brussels in search of freedom, later escaping the Nazi invasion of Belgium and France, before journeying on to the UK. He arrived in Glasgow, not speaking any English, moving on to London in 1943, before settling in Ystradgynlais, South Wales, where he lived from 1944-55.

Here are some highlights of the show to whet your appetite.

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‘My Family and I’, Josef Herman, 1941

We are in Warsaw, with Herman’s intimate portrait of his family in their cramped tenement. Herman’s deaf-mute younger sister, Zelda, sits at the window isolated with her cat. His mother, at the heart and centre of the family, is at her washtub. His studious brother pours over his books. His ill-educated father, David, who scraped a bare living as a cobbler, is at his anvil. His observant orthodox Jewish grandfather is at prayer. Herman includes himself at the bottom right of the picture, painting at his easel.

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‘The Cobbler (My Father)’, Josef Herman, 1943

Herman commemorates his father in the poignant and monumental portrait, The Cobbler. In truth, Herman had an ambivalent relationship with his father of frustration and respect. Here he celebrates the dignity of the working man – a person who works with his hands. These are shown prominently.

In Warsaw Herman was in trouble on two accounts: he was Jewish and he was Socialist. In 1938, with increasing anti-Semitism, and having been imprisoned twice on account of his political views, Herman decided to leave Warsaw. He was seen off by his parents at Warsaw railway station, leaving his native city forever in the hope that his family would follow him. This moment is depicted in the picture ‘Leaving Home’.

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‘Leaving Home’, Josef Herman, c1938

This drawing is a picture of great emotional feeling. Herman’s beloved mother, Sarah, in tears. Yet this is described with the most economical of means: pen and ink and wash. He was never to see his mother again.

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‘Woman in Yellow Turban’, Josef Herman, c1936-8

Inspired by the work of Rembrandt and Breughel, Herman headed, not for Paris like so many other young artists of the time, but for Brussels. This is surely a young artist at his most experimental, on a journey of discovery in search of a different and distinctive style: expressionism.His subject is dressed in a headdress of bananas and surrounded by fruit – a modern cornucopia.

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‘The Gamblers’, Josef Herman, 1938

This is signed Bruxelles/Herman and is a striking genre scene showing not so much the influence of Cezanne but the influences of the contemporary art Herman was seeing at the time. The raw, angular figures, with their expressions of fierce concentration, are distinctly alive. The dice on the green baize board leads us into the picture.

But danger was imminent. In May 1940, when the Nazis attacked Belgium, Herman escaped with this picture rolled up in his suitcase. He found himself with 2 million others on the road to France. At the port of La Rochelle he was mistaken for a Polish deserter and manhandled by military policemen onto a ship full of Polish airmen bound for North America.

Diverted by the thread of submarines, he found himself in that well-known suburb of New York: Liverpool. Here, he was ordered to present himself to the Polish Consul, who sent him on the next part of his journey. And so he arrived, entirely by accident, in Glasgow.

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If you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour please make sure you come and see the exhibition itself, on until 8 July 2012. For more information, visit our website: http://www.rwa.org.uk/exhibitions-josef-herman/

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