From British daily The Morning Star:
In Praise of Humanity: A Tribute to Josef Herman
Boundary Gallery, London NW8
Monday 15 June 2009
by Christine Lindey
Born in 1911 to an illiterate cobbler and a washerwoman, Josef Herman grew up in the slums of Warsaw.
A working-class Jew under Pilsudski’s anti-semitic near-dictatorship, Herman was politicised early and remained true to his secularist and socialist beliefs until he died in 2000.
Leaving school aged 13, he did assorted unskilled jobs until working at a printing shop run by an enlightened anarchist changed his life.
He learned the typesetter’s art and craft and discovered modern art and its ideological debates through the Printers’ Union library and its cultural programmes.
Opposing the Polish modernists’ love affair with the style-obsessed French avant-garde, they promoted Soviet socialist realism and socially committed German expressionists such as Grosz, Dix and Kollwitz.
Taking the daily life of the working class as their subject, they set out “to convey graphically the reality of the world of work.”
In the chaos of the nazi invasions, Herman ended up as a refugee in Britain where he continued to work for the rest of his life according to the credo of his Warsaw youth.
He found his mature voice in Ystradgynlais, the Welsh mining village where he lived from 1944-52.
He felt an affinity with the close-knit, politically conscious working-class community which recalled that of his childhood.
The miners and their village became his subject matter.
With the recent nationalisation of the mines, they symbolised the egalitarian optimism of the post-war era and Herman’s paeans to their labour captured the popular mood of the time.
By the late 1940s, his critical reputation was so high that he got a major mural commission for the 1951 Festival of Britain. His solo exhibitions sold out and, in 1956, he had a retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Yet how many of the younger generation have even heard of him?
By the mid-1960s, critical opinion considered work such as his to be politically naive in subject and old-fashioned in form.
Herman never regained the central place that he’d attained in British art in the post-war era.
The Boundary Road Gallery exhibition provides an opportunity to discover or reconsider his work.
Curated with feeling, it presents 84 paintings and drawings arranged chronologically to illustrate his output, from rare wartime works to those painted just before his death.
“A close observer of the way in which posture can convey meaning, he delineated his subjects with spontaneity underpinned by a sureness of touch.”
His subject matter ranged far wider than the miners for which he is best known. He was fascinated by people. We see unassuming working people earning a living and going about their daily lives, men and women caring for their babies, Burgundian field workers resting for a moment on their spades, Scottish fishermen hanging out their nets, miners hacking at the coal face or walking home from the pit at dusk and three sheep-shearers, shoulders high, backs bent, knees holding down the animal as they clip away.
Drawing was his forte. A close observer of the way in which posture can convey meaning, he delineated his subjects with spontaneity underpinned by a fluid sureness of touch.
Ninety years since the coup of Piłsudski. The Strategy of the Intermarium: here.