Herman, Josef

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Herman, Josef

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Herman, Josef (1911–2000), artist, was born on 3 January 1911 in Warsaw, Poland, the eldest of the three children of David Herman (d. 1942), a partner in a shoe factory, and his wife, Sarah Krukman (1893?–1942). He was brought up in great poverty, mostly on the streets of the Jewish quarter, for his illiterate father was persuaded to make his mark on a document which gave his absconding partner the right to sell their shared shoe factory and flee to America. David Herman sank into deep depression, incapable even of feeding himself, and his young wife, Sarah, was forced to take control of the household, fetching in other people's washing and cleaning their houses. Eventually, David managed to pull himself together sufficiently to take up cobbling, but he remained a broken man. As a consequence of this early experience, however successful he was in later years, Josef Herman would always worry about money.
Herman attended a school in Warsaw until he was thirteen. He had already engaged in a long series of temporary jobs, the first of which was as a seller of soda water in a local cinema. As a child he adopted the habit of rising early, at 4 a.m. every day, in order to have some time to himself in the single crowded room where the family slept, before the bustle of the day began. It was a habit he maintained all his life, whatever time he went to bed, and helps to account for his prodigious output of drawings and paintings. At this time he also made the acquaintance of a wandering artist, Master Xavery Rex, and a Dr Saltzman, both of whom settled in their street. From one he learned the magic of art, from the other the lesson of true humanity.
Not until he was sixteen did Herman settle in a job, as apprentice typesetter to the one-time anarchist and printer Felix Yacubowitch. For the next three years he studied his trade until he fell ill with lead poisoning. Disbarred from printing on medical grounds, he became a freelance graphic designer, and enrolled for an eighteen-month stint at the Warsaw School of Art and Decoration (1930–32). In 1932 Herman held his first exhibition of pictures, in a frame-maker's shop, and began to enjoy a slight reputation as an artist. He joined the Phrygian Bonnet, a group of socially aware artists who painted the peasants of the Carpathian mountains in an expressionist manner. Although a lifelong and committed man of the left, Herman belonged to no political party, but the authorities considered all artists Bolsheviks. Warsaw was unwelcoming and antisemitic. In 1938 Herman left Poland for Belgium. He was never to see his family or his homeland again.
In Brussels, Herman enrolled at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts and fell under the formative influence of Constant Permeke (1886–1952), a painter of peasants in a weighty, earthy style. The Nazi invasion of Europe cut short his stay. Herman fled through France to La Rochelle, where he was mistaken for a Polish airman because of his black leather coat and beret. He was put on a ship to England, arriving in Liverpool in June 1940. From there he was sent, speaking no English, to the Polish consulate in Glasgow.
Wartime Glasgow was surprisingly lively; Herman was befriended by the sculptor Benno Schotz, and renewed his acquaintance with the painter Jankel Adler. He met J. D. Fergusson, got to know Joan Eardley, then a student at Glasgow School of Art, and designed sets and costumes for Margaret Morris's Celtic Ballet company. In 1942 he learned through the Red Cross that his family had been destroyed in the Nazi holocaust; he had previously begun a series of drawings of Jewish life in Poland and transmuted this tragedy into a melancholy but powerful celebration of Jewish themes and memories, a kind of visual autobiography. Later, in 1953, he helped to found the Jewish Quarterly. In 1942 he met and married Catriona MacLeod (d. c.1990), a whisky heiress and also an artist. In 1943 the newly-weds moved to London, and Herman held his first exhibition there, at the Reid and Lefevre Gallery, shared with another unknown, L. S. Lowry.
As yet, Herman had not discovered his mature voice as an artist. He achieved this when first visiting the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais in the summer of 1944. There he experienced a key moment of recognition when he saw a group of miners returning from work briefly outlined on a bridge against a copper-coloured sky. That image stayed with him and provided a subject. For the next eleven years Herman lived in Ystradgynlais and painted and drew the miners. He was swiftly accepted into the community and nicknamed Joe Bach, and the work he subsequently produced made his name as a distinct artistic force in Britain.
Herman did not paint the miners at work in the pit—as Henry Moore had done—but captured them in the canteen or walking home, exhausted after their labours. More often than not, they are anonymous, and represent the universal rather than the particular: they stand for the dignity of labour, of the working man. There are portraits of individual miners, such as Mike, but these are portraits first, miners second. Herman was a subtle and perceptive portraitist—see, for instance, his portrait of Arnold Wesker in the National Portrait Gallery—but he rarely accepted commissions. For a decade the miner was his principal subject, but by no means his only one. His range was always far wider than commonly thought. Apart from fishermen and peasants at work, he also drew and painted ballet dancers and sportsmen (playing football, tennis, or snooker), while a chief preoccupation for many years was with the female nude. In later life Herman was just as likely to paint a single tree or bird, or a refulgent vase of flowers.
Although his reputation grew rapidly in the 1950s, not everything was well with Herman. His wife suffered a mental breakdown at the birth of a stillborn child, and Herman's own health suffered from the damp Welsh climate. Foreign travel was advised: over the next decade Herman visited Israel, France, Italy, and Spain. Early in 1955 and back in London, Herman met Dr Eleanor Marie (Nini) Ettlinger (b. 1925), who became his model and soon his mistress. That year he had a joint exhibition with L. S. Lowry and Nehemiah Azaz at the Wakefield City Art Gallery. There were retrospectives in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, then in Glasgow in 1975, and at Camden Arts Centre in London in 1980.
In 1960 Herman divorced Catriona MacLeod, and the following year, on 11 March, married Nini Ettlinger. A son had been born to the couple in 1957, and they soon decided to forsake London for Suffolk. But disaster pursued them. In the mid-1960s Herman found he could not work and suffered from severe depression. In 1966 the Hermans' infant daughter died. Herman became suicidal and was given electroconvulsive therapy and drug treatment, recovering only gradually. He moved back to London on his own, and it was not until 1975 that the family was reunited.
Herman was really happy only when he was working. Admittedly his habit of early rising allowed him a head start on most people (‘six masterpieces before breakfast, my dear!’ he would boast), but his industry rarely flagged. He drew in pencil and ink, worked rapidly in watercolour and mixed media, and painted more slowly in oils. He read widely, particularly relishing the autobiographies of artists, and wrote voluminously himself. Mostly his writing took the journal form. His first book, entitled Related Twilights (1975), was subtitled ‘Notes from an artist's diary’, and is a vivid evocation of people, places, and art. Herman was also famous for his internationally acclaimed collection of African miniature sculptures, an enthusiasm that grew from his friendship with Jacob Epstein.
Herman received various honours, including an OBE in 1981, and was elected a Royal Academician in 1990. A generous and charming man, he was much loved by a wide circle of friends. Habitually dressed in brown cords, topped with a white lab coat when in the studio, he was a man of few worldly needs. In later years he mostly occupied a cosy bed-sitting room situated handily at the top of steep steps leading down to the picturesque studio full of his own work and his African sculpture. His profoundly humanistic vision has an inspiring boldness and monumental grandeur that will survive. He died at his home, 120 Edith Road, London, on 19 February 2000, and was cremated on 23 February at Golders Green. His works are held in numerous British collections, including the Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow; the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea; the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff; The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; the Tate collection and the British Museum, London; Birmingham City Art Gallery; Leeds City Art Gallery; the City Art Gallery, Bristol; and Aberdeen Art Gallery.


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Andrew Lambirth, ‘Herman, Josef (1911–2000)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/60571, accessed 11 Aug 2014)

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Biographical History Author: Andrew Lambirth

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