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Josef Herman: art from the valleys

A Jewish emigre artist who settled in South Wales was taken to the local community's heart with his pictures of working men. Carole Morgan Hopkin remembers a family friend.

    Joe Herman sketching underground in a coal mine
    Joe Herman sketching underground in a coal mine PHOTO: Llew E Morgan collection

    It was in the 1980s in the Cork Street gallery of Browse and Darby that I stood transfixed before Josef Herman’s painting, Evening, Ystradgynlais. The colours glowed with an inner life, the subject, a river, a roadway with dark, homegoing figures and a sky aflame with copper light. The whole rich image was an icon, to which I was personally connected.

    After some time the young American assistant approached. “You obviously like the painting,” she said. “It’s somewhere in Poland, I think. He’s Polish, you know.”

    Oh, yes, I knew, for I had been equally awed when, as a toddler, I sat on Josef’s lap in my grandparents’ house in Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley. He was telling me a story about a melody that had come from Israel and then lost its way. Although I was too young to understand the deep significance of this tale I was held in awesome attention by Josef’s voice, rich and exotic as it was.

    He had arrived in our village in 1944 after a chance meeting with local writer, David Alexander. Immediately he felt at home among this mining community, who, in a short time, were calling him, Joe Bach, a sign of their absolute acceptance.

    Other émigré artists from Europe who settled in Wales at this time included Frederick Konekamp in West Wales, Ernest Neuschul in Mumbles, outside Swansea, Georg Mayer-Martin in Monmouth and Heinz Koppel in one of the more industrial valleys of South Wales. Like Josef, these artists brought with them a broader vision which enlivened Welsh art and still influences many young artists today.

    My grandfather, the photographer, Llew E. Morgan, became one of Joe’s close friends. On many evenings after Joe’s regular 12-hour working day they would walk the Breconshire hills. Joe writes: “On the narrow road, high hills the colour of moss and a small sky. Walking with Llew all the way from Ystrad we talk about the strange attraction of isolated places.”

     

    Man Digging by Josef Herman
    Man Digging by Josef Herman

    When Joe expressed a desire to see the miners at work, Llew arranged a visit to the local colliery. Joe sketched while Llew took the photographs. The artist’s empathy with the hardship of the miners’ working life formed the foundation of his own work — the miner becoming a central image, growing on canvas in dignity and monumental proportions to dominate the landscape he mined.

    Llew was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party and politics were the focal point of conversation when the local intelligentsia of artists and writers met at our house each Thursday night. Josef’s journey from his home in a Warsaw ghetto through Europe to Wales covered the devastating years of the Holocaust and the Second World War. My mother remembers VE night celebrations in Ystradgynlais and Joe’s silence while all around there was music and dancing. He had heard in 1942 that his entire family had been murdered by the Nazis, but now peace brought the reality into unavoidable clarity.

    In 1952, on one of his visits to London from Wales, Josef met Jacob Sonntag, who told him he had serious plans to start a magazine, the name to be the Jewish Quarterly. The very first issue, in spring 1953, contained two of Josef’s drawings from his recent visit to Israel, and he continued, over the years, to contribute articles on art, literature and even some of his own creative writing.

    When Joe finally left Ystrad on his doctor’s advice to seek warmer climes, he said that he took Ystrad with him.

    When I returned to London from five years working in New York I found Joe and his wife Nini living in West Kensington. I was invited to lunch, and here Joe was at the red front door of Edith Road exactly as I remembered him, in brown cords, white collarless shirt and a red kerchief at his neck. Nini’s warmth and hospitality overwhelmed and we sat until evening discussing everything from Shakespeare to Ystradgynlais, poetry to painting. Joe had reams of Shakespeare memorised, putting me to shame. Occasionally we would take lunch at a small, family-run Italian restaurant in Earl’s Court Road where Joe’s no-fuss earthiness had made him one of that particular family, too.

    In May 2000, at his memorial service, the Ystradgynlais Gyrlais choir shared their minor-key soulfulness and hiraeth — a Welsh word meaning a longing for your homeland, not just emotionally but physically, needing to feel the earth in your hands and under your feet.

    I returned to live in the valley in 1992 and held my art classes in Ystradgynlais Miners’ Welfare Hall, in the same room where Joe would have got together with Llew and other members of the Camera Club. I met again Betty Rae Watkins, who now lives in Joe’s old studio and home. With other artists and educators, we formed the idea of setting up a foundation in honour of Josef.

    Three Miners by Josef Herman
    Three Miners by Josef Herman

    The aims of the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru are to re-energise, locally and nationally, interest in Josef’s work and to promote an appreciation of his life and commitment to art. The Miners’ Welfare Hall proves the perfect home for the Foundation and it is here that schoolchildren from a growing number of Welsh counties come to view the work they have created with the encouragement of our artists in residence. Each year, we initiate an award for schools giving children the opportunity to hear Josef’s story and to be inspired by his work.

    In 2013, we worked towards Tate Britain’s outreach project application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tate were successful, and we were the only project to run in Wales. Titled, Mining Josef Herman, we were able to look at ways of preserving our collection, generously gifted to us by Nini Herman. Our success made us the first community-based charity to be digitally archived for posterity. It left a lasting legacy from which we are able to develop the Foundation’s work.

    The Foundation also curates touring exhibitions from its collection of Josef’s drawings and paintings, organises a lecture programme, donates a Gold Award for the People’s Choice at the art exhibition at the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales, runs a Friends of Josef Herman society with regular newsletters and events, and a website, www.josefhermanfoundation.org.

    John Berger, friend and supportive critic of Josef’s wrote: “He was one of my teachers. From him I learnt about exile, endurance, courage and a respect and love for those who have been described as the salt of the earth.”

    When he was 12, Josef was elected editor of his school magazine. He wrote a poem which is here translated from Polish:-

     

    I don’t know what I will be

    A poet or a painter.

    I don’t know whether I will speak

    Through poems or paintings.

     

    I like pictures in poetry

    I like poetry in pictures

    I don’t know what I will be

    A poet or a painter.

     

    Perhaps I will never be

    A poet or a painter

    And with unwritten poems

    I will pass through life, a living picture.

     

    Josef has always influenced and inspired me in my life and work and now, as one of the trustees of the Foundation, I am part of an organisation that will ensure that his life will continue to shine as bright as that sky that caught my imagination in his painting, Evening, Ystradgynlais.

     

    The People’s Choice Herman Gold Award will be presented at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Anglesey which starts today.