Figurative artist Josef Herman was born the son of a cobbler in a poor district of Warsaw, Poland. He studied at Warsaw School of Art and Decoration (1930–31), where he was also part of a left-wing group of artists called the Phrygian Bonnet. As a socialist Jewish artist living under the imminent threat of National Socialism, Herman fled Poland in 1938 arriving in Glasgow via Belgium and France in 1940.
Here he spent two years painting nostalgic images from his childhood, until in 1942 Herman learned that his entire family had perished in the Holocaust. Although he had already begun the powerful body of work on Jewish themes, this now darkened to include works specifically referencing pogroms. Eventually, he would abandon painting and drawing Jewish subjects altogether.
After moving to the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais in 1944, Herman found new inspiration in the miners and field labourers he encountered there; imagery for which he is still fondly remembered. After earning himself a considerable reputation with these mining scenes, Herman was commissioned to paint a mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951, cementing his place in the British Arts.
His works demonstrate a life-long pre-occupation with the working class, who he believed to represent ‘a walking monument of human labour’. He travelled widely, but the subjects of his paintings remained the same – fishermen, harvesters, roadworkers – the heroes of hard work. Herman’s distinctive palette of gold, copper-red, orange, and cobalt blue, framed by thick black lines like stain-glass windows, geometric and angular, combine to create the mood of twilight that is particular to much of his work.
“His pictures are stark, sombre, and luminous, and of an uncompromising truth.”
– An Excerpt from an article written by influential art critic John Berger in the Burlington Magazine 1955.
Herman became a naturalised British citizen in 1948 and was later awarded an OBE for services to British art. His work has been exhibited extensively across the world, including in New Zealand and Canada, and most recently in a group exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery, London.
Josef Herman died in 2000.
Alongside the rise of Nazism in Germany and an increasing anti-semitic feeling in independent Poland; laws were passed to restrict the movement of Jews and segregate them from society.
As a result, thousands of Jews fled to Europe and America, where they escaped the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the implementation of “The Final Solution”. Occupied Poland subsequently became the largest site of Jewish extermination, where it is estimated that no more than 400,000 Polish-Jews survived.
Throughout the 1930s a large number of Jews were seeking sanctuary in the UK due to persecution in Germany and Poland, but the immigration policies relating to them were very restrictive. In November 1938 the Kristallnacht pogrom convinced Chamberlain to ease the admission policy, but even then refugees were only allowed entry on temporary visas. The British cabinet agreed that they would try to secure a home in the UK for Jews expelled from Germany and Poland who had achieved success in a number of fields including art.