Life & Culture

The mystery of Josef Herman and the vanished paintings

A series of works went missing for decades. Now on show, could the artist have found them too emotional to bear?


Josef Herman is probably best known for his paintings of Welsh miners, a subject he first painted when he visited the Welsh mining town of Ystradgynlais in 1944. He spent 11 years in the town and much of his work from then until his death in 2000 at the age of 89 celebrated working people.

However, when the Ben Uri Gallery decided to organise an exhibition to mark the centenary of Herman's birth, it decided to examine his career up to his arrival in Wales rather than concentrate on the better known subjects. This was a traumatic period in Herman's life - he left his family behind in Warsaw to go first to Brussels and then to Glasgow and London.

Ben Uri chairman David Glasser explains that: "Herman had 200 odd exhibitions in his lifetime but this was one period which was not covered." Glasser also admits to a personal connection with Herman at this time. "My father, who recently passed away, was the doctor to refugees arriving in Glasgow. So when Josef arrived in Glasgow he was directed to my father."

It is also an apt choice of subject for the Ben Uri, as in this period many of the works had strong Jewish themes. As exhibition curator Sarah MacDougall says: "This exhibition focuses on his early career. Studying this period we uncovered great richness."

Josef Herman was born in 1911 in Warsaw, the son of an illiterate cobbler. "He was obviously very visually aware from a young age," says MacDougall. "There was a local sign-painter and he would go and press his nose up against the window to see inside. When Herman left school, he was apprenticed to a typesetter. He was introduced to lots of magazines and developed a keen visual sense. But he was forced to abandon this career when he was given lead type in a sandwich as a prank and ended up with severe lead poisoning."

It is very strange he could have lost those drawings for such a long time

Herman then did a year's training at Warsaw School of Art and began to work as a freelance graphic artist. However, in 1938, he decided to move to Brussels, explaining: "I felt oppressed in Poland under its fascist regime, both as liberal and as a Jew". He captured his last minutes clinging to his tearful mother in a poignant drawing entitled Leaving Home in which the entire background appears to dissolve in tears. He was never to return to Poland and never saw his family again - they perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The stay in Brussels was short. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, he was forced to move on again. He came to Glasgow but also spent some weeks in the Polish Refugee Centre in Norwood, London. There, his determination to paint became evident, as MacDougall illustrates: "The Red Cross came to give out parcels of clothes and instead he asked for paper and brushes. He even made paint brushes from his own hair. He also commited a minor offence so he could be put in solitary confinement which allowed him the space to paint."

It was in Glasgow that he began work on the series he called A Memory of Memories, mostly works on paper in which he recalled the life he had left behind in Warsaw. These moving works, many of which are simple pen and ink drawings, have rarely been exhibited as Herman rediscovered them only in the 1980s. The artist's son, David, says his father never talked about his youth and family in Poland, and wonders whether for many years it was too difficult a subject for him to deal with. "The
A Memory of Memories series vanished and then turned up very mysteriously. He claims he found them in his studio. It was possible, as his studio was an absolute jumble of drawings and paintings and sketchbooks all over the place. But I think it was a very strange thing that he could have lost those drawings for such a long time and then found them again much later."

Another work from this period is My Family and I, which shows Herman painting surrounded by his family. It now belongs to Sir Jeremy Isaacs whose Glaswegian parents met Herman at the home of the sculptor Benno Schotz. "Josef was broke and had no money for paint, canvas and brushes," says Isaacs. "My parents bought the painting for £25. Josef tried to buy it back a couple of times, but my father always refused. I am very proud that they left it to me." In the work, the painting of Herman's easel shows a figure in a mask, dressed for the festival of Purim, a favourite theme in his work at the time. "Purim was a source of inspiration," says MacDougall. "It represented the strength of Jewish culture and the fight back against destruction."

The exhibition also includes works by other Jewish artists whom Herman met when he moved to London in 1943. "They were all extremely important to him," comments MacDougall. "He felt he had come to the end of the rich imagery he had in Glasgow and was searching for what do to next. I think it was tremendously inspiring to meet up with Ludwig Meidner and David Bomberg in particular. They were colourful characters, and had great arguments about art. He was encouraged by the fact that, despite the difficulties of the war, they still seemed very sure of the path they were taking."

His closest friend was the painter Jankel Adler who nursed him through the breakdown he suffered when he heard his family had been killed by the Nazis.

Herman was not religious - writer Gabriel Josipovici described him instead as "the best kind of secular, cosmopolitan Jew". "I absolutely agree," says David Herman. "My father was part of a generation who were absolutely soaked in the Jewish culture of central and eastern Europe. A Memory of Memories is one man's attempt to bring to life a world which he had lost and was pretty sure would be destroyed. And I think it is that which gives the drawings tremendous power.'

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