By June 1941 the Nazi’s systematic enslavement and murder of the Jewish people of Poland had reached unprecedented levels of horror. Half a million Jews were confined in the Warsaw Ghetto where the death toll from starvation had reached 2000 a month. The home of Herman’s family was in the epicentre of the Ghetto. In 1942 the terrible news reached Herman from the Red Cross, long feared and half expected, that his entire family had perished. He was not to learn of the full circumstances until 1948.
Josef Herman suffered a breakdown from which he was to be rescued by his friend Jankel Adler. They shared not only their Warsaw roots and most intimate fears but also a profound mutual understanding. The works from this period speak powerfully for themselves.
At the end of 1942, Herman and his friend Benno Schotz organised an exhibition of Jewish Art in Glasgow, including work by Modigliani, Chagall, Soutine and others. The introduction to the show’s catalogue read:
Today when on the continent of Europe Jewish life and culture is being systematically and brutally uprooted and destroyed, there is an urgent necessity for Jews elsewhere to demonstrate their faith in themselves and their future.
Herman’s response was his ongoing exploration of the Jewish festival of Purim: the festival when Jews celebrate their deliverance from a genocidal plot and mock their enemies.
‘Purimspiele’, Josef Herman, 1943
In ‘Purimspiele’, four figures spread from left to right; the far right figure gesticulates with his hand. The pointed hats echo the hat worn by Haman at the moment of his arrest and defeat by Esther. The figure on the far left holds a gragger (or rattle) used to make a noise during the reading of the Book of Esther every time the name of Haman is mentioned.
‘Sabbatai Zvi’, Josef Herman, 1942-3
Sabbatai Zvi (1626-76) was a real figure in the Ottoman Empire. He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and sought to persuade the Jews to settle in Palestine. He was later forced by the Sultan Mehmed IV to convert to Islam. Herman depicts him as the false messiah wearing his crown and with his bride, Sarah (who in some accounts is a prostitute). This is an extraordinary picture, showing that Herman was absorbed in Jewish subject matter, influenced by his friendship with Adler.
By the summer of 1944, Herman was an artist in search of a subject. Kenneth Clark had said to him: ‘Mr Herman you are a very talented painter but my advice to you is to go back to Europe. We English have a great sense of nature but not of humanity’.
Instead, Herman and his wife went on holiday to Brecon, South Wales, from where they were taken on to the mining village of Ystradgynlais. Arriving at sunset, as a group of miners appeared on the bridge in front of him, their black silhouettes against the yellow disc of the setting sun, Herman knew he had found his subject.
He had arrived a stranger for a fortnight. He stayed for eleven years.
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/