Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44 at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44 at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Joseph Herman:Warsaw,Brussels,Glasgow,London, 1938-44 focuses on the formative years of Herman’s prolific career, which spanned seven decades. Born in Warsaw in 1911, the artist fled, in 1938, to Brussels and then London to escape mounting anti-Semitism in Poland. Poignant, doleful, and exquisitely tender, Herman’s showcased work displays a wide range of artistic accomplishment attained in only a short period of time.

The main gallery showcases Herman’s early works, which encompass motifs recurring throughout his career – family being a prominent one – as well as demonstrating influences from the work of artists such as Van Gogh and Chagall. Herman’s 1943 work The Cobbler, ostensibly a portrait of the artist’s father at work, is executed in muted earthy tones and uncomplicated lines: the father’s disproportionately large hands, together with the serene expression on his face, conveys the kind of tenderness mixed with contemplation the artist approaches his subjects with throughout his career.

Still, this does not imply a distancing on the part of the artist: contrast The Cobbler with the earlier Leaving Home (1938), a sketch depicting the final moments before the artist parted with his family. The lines are blurred, the figures almost entangled in the act of embracing possibly for the last time, despair written over their faces. The figures on either side of them are all by obliterated, their sober faces still visible. The pathos of the scene spills out of the paper in a manner that cannot fail to involve the viewer, betraying as it does the artist’s own deep-rooted connection to his subject matter.

The three Memory of a Pogrom paintings displayed in the adjacent gallery, on the right-hand side of the entrance, are especially worthy of note. The paintings –which could be considered companion pieces – present different variations of the theme of motherhood : a mother figure protectively crouching over a tiny infant, suspended in the act of fleeing what is presumably a war-torn landscape. The figure is exaggerated almost to the point of distortion, her hunching back and huge enveloping hands done in simple lines that effectively communicate the anguish of maternity caught in the midst of conflict.

The backgrounds vary from a city in flames, to a wind-swept darkening landscape of desolation, to an azure blue abyss threatening to engulf the mother, who appears to almost be dissolving into it. The elements of fire, wind, and water all seem to be gathering force; huge, they loom against the fleeing mother, whose agonized face and desperate tenderness in clutching her child accentuate her smallness, her ineffectual attempt to protect her infant from the impending, unstoppable, historical events that scarred history forever. The juxtaposition of the enormity of the circumstances and the smallness –but simultaneous magnitude – of maternal instinct in the face of those circumstances is arrestingly encapsulated in this series.

Herman’s work, clearly influenced by the most prominent Jewish Modernist, Marc Chagall, displays “an extraordinary range of highly imaginative colour”, as noted by the exhibition’s curating team. Herman’s arresting use of colour is evident in works such as The Dream (1940), a composition largely made up of a block of yolk yellow against a steel blue sky, with a shock of a red cockerel in the upper right hand corner; and, more notably, in slightly later works such as Purimspiele (1943) and Sabbatai Zvi (1942-3). Sabbatai Zvi is a portrait of the historical personage of the same name, a self-proclaimed Messiah, and his wife Sarah, by some accounts a prostitute. Sabbatai’s shockingly red beard against his pale pink face, the gleaming blue and ruby red jewels in his false prophet crown, the navy shadow of his cloak against the purple cloth itself; the ghostly figure of Sarah coming out of the abyss behind Sabbatai, framed in a cold white veil contrasted against her glowing skin; all these chromatic notes come together in a vibrant whole attesting Herman’s mastery of his palette.

A visit to the exhibition would be woefully incomplete without due contemplation of the series of drawings showcased in the gallery adjacent to the main hall, opposite the Memory of a Pogrom Paintings: their poignancy and directness is perhaps unparalleled in early 20th century drawing.

Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44, 05/05/2012 until 08/07/2012, The Royal West of England Academy, Queen’s Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1PX.

Josef Herman: We Are This Lane: The Yellow (Eastern Capitalist) (1941)
Courtesy Private Collection

Text: Regina Papachlimitzou