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thE immigRant Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44 is now showing at the Ben Uri. Monica BohM-DUchen explores the influences the artist brought with him from Warsaw to Glasgow and the impact he made on a conservative British art world

Mosek Josef Herman was born on 3 January 1911 in a predominantly Jewish working-class area ofWarsaw. His father was an illiterate cobbler and living conditions were basic in the extreme: My Family and I (below opposite), painted in Glasgow in 1940-1, allows a vivid glimpse of lives, separate yet intimately linked, being lived in these confined quarters. Herman’s parents were observant Jews. Herman later expressed

doubt as to whethermost Jews, including his family, understood the meaning of their prayers. By hismid-teens, he himself had lost any conventional religious convictions.As he wrote in his journal: “It all started when I was sixteen. First I doubted God. Then I doubted his existence. Then becoming aware of the creative power of the unconscious, individual and collective, God died onme and has never since been resurrected. The dark,mystical sources of experience remained dark, relevant and life-enhancing.” Yet his sense of Jewishness, in the formof a deep loyalty to

Eastern EuropeanYiddish culture, and a quasi-religious conviction that art,morality andmysticismare inextricable, never left him. In an essay written in 1961, entitled ‘TheWarsaw Jew’, he wrote: “Of course the synagogue was no longer the sole place of Jewish gatherings. Nor was it any longer the sole government of the Jewish heart. The political parties, the trade unions, the discussion groups, the libraries all supplied their places with their spiritual incentives… Afamily with an Orthodox and pious father, a Zionist son, a Bundist daughter, another son a Communist or amember of the Poalei-Zion was not as far-fetched as itmay seem.” With the end ofWorldWar I came independence for Poland.

Hopes for a better life ran high among non-Jewish and Jewish Poles alike, but for the Jews these hopes were to prove illusory. Under the virtual dictatorship of Józef Pilsudski from1926 onwards, antisemitism– never very far fromthe surface of Polish life – gained the ascendancy, in effect becoming official state policy. Herman writes: “The first soldiers of free Poland that I saw chilled my every nerve. Instead of feeling happy and gay I felt terror. They were in the bright blue uniformof General Haller’s army and they were chasing bearded Jews in the same way and with the same terrible determination as grandma Feigl chased her rats! . . . It somehow slipped ourminds to cheer the independence of Poland.” Having left school at the age of 13, Josef took on a succession

ofmenial jobs, eventually working as a typesetter under the culturally enlightened and politically radical FelixYacubowitch. Membership of the Printers’Union, with its extensive library and programme of cultural events, also helped broaden the youngman’s horizons; as did Herman’s association with a group called the Children of Peretz, united not by politics but by their love of the Yiddish language. Herman admitted that “I detested theYiddish I had heard as a child and wanted nothing to do with it. Its vocabulary

comprised utility words with no beauty, no lyricism, nomusic . . . Until the age of 17, I preferred Polish.” Through this group and its activities, aimed at freeingYiddish fromits ‘parochial status’, Herman became acquainted with the work of youngerYiddish writers such as PeretzMarkish, “And withmy progress inYiddish I too began feeling proud ofmy Jewish identity.” Josef found work as a graphic designer, which led to an ever

greater interest in the visual arts. By themid-1930s, he tells us, “I was particularly active among a group of painters whose link was political rather than artistic; politically they were to the left, artistically they were as varied as the nature of individual temperaments can be.”Adisproportionate number of these artists were Jewish and, tragically, a large number of themwouldmeet their deaths inWorldWar II. By the later 1930s the political situation in Poland had

deteriorated still further. Having been arrested several times, in autumn 1938 he decided to leave his native country, hoping that his family would follow. After fleeing the Nazis in Belgiumand then France, Herman

arrived in Glasgow in late June 1940. He admitted later that “these were lonely years . . .My constant companions were the sculptor Benno Schotz and the painter JankelAdler . . . it was with Jankel that I could sharemymore intimate fears.”Apoignant reminder of this intimate relationship is a Jewish prayer shawl thatAdler gave himand that remained in his studio until the end of his life. Soon after his arrival in Glasgow, the floodgates ofmemory

seemed to open, leading to the production of dozens of small pen and wash drawings that would later come to be collectively known asMemory ofMemories, and a smaller number of paintings,mostly in gouache and/or tempera. In 1985 Herman wrote: “all I could see was whatmymemory wantedme to see . . .men and women in the refinement of a unique spirit.Most of thempoor, certainly, but I saw themin an aura which I can only call enchantment . . . The reality, I well knew, was shoddy inmany of its social aspects, butmy memory of those people was beautiful; and who says that you cannot have it both ways on the plane of the imagination? I was a lover, not a documentarist.” Although the emphasis is on nostalgia, closer scrutiny of the

work reveals a far greater emotional complexity. There is often a strong element of earthy humour and exaggeration, sometimes bordering on caricature, akin to that found in the work ofMarc Chagall and inYiddish literature.Yet in their bitter-sweet, witty, tender yet nervous linearity, combined with atmospheric washes, they do strike a distinctive note of their own: certainly, there is nothing remotely like themin the history of art in Britain. In 1942 came the news that Herman had long feared, yet half expected: his entire family had been exterminated by the Nazis.As


JeWiSh renaiSSance octoBer 2011

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