Josef Herman was born into a poor Jewish working-class family in Warsaw in 1911. He worked as an apprentice typesetter and graphic artist before briefly training at the Warsaw School of Art (1930–32), establishing a life-long interest in portraying working people. He co-founded the left-wing artistic group ‘the Phrygian Bonnet’ in 1934. In 1938 amid rising anti-Semitism Herman fled to Brussels (1938–40), then following the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, he fled again through France and England, settling in Glasgow (1940–43). There, together with Jankel Adler and sculptor Benno Schotz, he contributed to a remarkable artistic renaissance spearheaded by the Scottish colourist J. D. Fergusson.In October 1941 Herman held his first UK exhibition in Glasgow; reprised in Edinburgh in 1942. In the same year he learned through the Red Cross that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. He had already begun the powerful, nostalgic body of work on Jewish themes, the Memory of Memories series, sketched quickly and fluidly from memory or imagination and this now darkened to include works referencing pogroms and the destruction of the Ghetto. In 1943 Herman moved to London, holding his first London exhibition (Reid and Lefevre Gallery) with the then little-known L. S. Lowry, and the Memory of Memories series concluded.
Refugees is a rare, important early painting, thought lost for over 60 years. Herman destroyed the majority of work from this period in 1948, considering it too influenced by Chagall. Blue was the dominant colour of Herman’s Glasgow years, used as a nostalgic evocation of a lost Warsaw with its moonlit spires. Like much of Herman’s Glasgow work, this painting draws strongly on his eastern European Jewish heritage and themes. However the refugees also represent the wider displacement of peoples uprooted and forced into exile by the upheavals of the Second World War. The family’s unknown fate is symbolized by the cat with a mouse dangling from its jaw. The treatment of the figures reflects Herman’s admiration for Käthe Kollwitz, while the fearful child with her hand in her mouth is reminiscent of Goya.
Ben Uri holds eight works by Herman including the early pen-and-ink sketch Musicians (c.1940–43) and a portrait drawing of the Yiddish poet, Avram Stencl. In 2011 it mounted the largest exhibition to date of Herman’s work from this rare period.
During the summer of 1944, on a chance visit to the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais Herman experienced an artistic epiphany and made his home among this close-knit, hard-working community for the next 11 years, establishing his reputation with dignified and empathetic portrayals of miners, which remain his best-known works. He held numerous solo and joint exhibitions, including one at Ben Uri with fellow émigré painter, Martin Bloch, in 1949 and another with Lowry and Nehemiah Azaz (Wakefield City Art Gallery, 1955) and retrospectives in London (1956; 1980) and Glasgow (1975). Awarded the OBE in 1981, he was elected a Royal Academician in 1990. Ben Uri holds 10 works by Herman in the Collection.