Herman arrived in Glasgow in June 1940, knowing no-one and speaking no English. He quickly established important friendships with the Estonian-born Jewish sculptor Benno Schotz (then Head of Sculpture and Ceramics at the renowned Glasgow School of Art) and fellow Polish-Jewish painter Jankel Adler (whom he knew previously in Warsaw).
The greater part of Herman’s work in Glasgow drew strongly on his Eastern-European Yiddish culture and his expressionist roots. Herman retained a deep commitment and loyalty to his Jewish heritage all his life although he was not conventionally religious.
Nowhere is Herman’s intense engagement with colour and form at a greater height than in this sequence of male portraits executed in gouache in 1940:
Soon after arrival in Glasgow, Herman was briefly conscripted into the Polish army in Biggar, Lanarkshire. But there was the same old problem of anti-Semitism. He requested a transfer to the British Army. While this was being considered he was held in the Polish Refugee Centre in London. During a visit by the Red Cross, Herman requested a few tubes of gouache, brushes and some paper, and arranged his own solitary confinement in order to secure himself a studio. Armed only with this equipment, Herman painted these portraits, all of inmates, whose startling colours and expressive character belie his limited palette.
Back in Glasgow and with his friends in the New Art Club, Herman designed these costumes and decor for the Glasgow Unity Theatre comapny, an amalgam of theatre groups with a staunchly Socialist outlook. This composite work comprises 11 beautifully preserved designs, each executed in gouache and as fresh and clear as the day on which they were first painted. They were made for an ambitious historical survey of Russian history from pre-1914 through to 1941:
A stage set, designed by Herman, showcases the Russian imperial eagle. 10 separate designs each represent an archetypal character. There are heroes and villains. The villains are the Eastern and Western Capitalists, the Nazi and the Transit Officer. They contrast with the hero of the Russian Revolution in red. This was 1941 and Russia was entering the War on the side of the Allies; people did not know the reality of Stalinism. The real heroes for Herman are the archetypal working people – 4 of them: Russian peasants and the Worker. The piece was first performed at the Unity Theatre, Glasgow, in October 1941 and repeated in February 1942.
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/