Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Josef Herman; The unseen forced journey of a Warsaw artist to a Welsh mine.

Josef Herman is arguably better known in British Contemporary Art for his extensive paintings and portraiture of Welsh miners from the small town of Ystradgynlais; in which Herman embarked on a life/artistic altering decision; presenting these town miners as his subject.
Though to capture a community the way in which Herman beautifully did, he had to be part of that community. Accepted through his warm character and charismatic way this small Welsh town welcomed him into their lives and even nicknamed him ‘Joe Bach’ (Joe Small). Herman was later quoted as saying: "I stayed here because I found all I required. I arrived here a stranger for a fortnight; the fortnight became 11 years." (Josef Herman)
By living within this strong community, Herman was able to naturalistically mould his artistic style to capture the realistic images of miners from Post War Wales, securing him with the title of being the artist of the time to reveal the 'working man' in Britain.

The Ben Uri Museum Gallery plays host to this unique exhibition charting Josef Herman’s extraordinary fleeing journey through Brussels, Glasgow and London up to his most artistic influential point in Wales. The Polish artist later moved to Suffolk then to London but commented towards the end of his life; "Only Ystradgynlais changed my life and my work… When I left I took it with me." (Josef Herman)
Being interested in Contemporary Art, I too only knew of Josef Herman through his stark portrayals of those Welsh miners from Ystradgynlais, seen in Herman’s 1949; Street in Ystradgynlais [inkwash, 20 x 26cm]

Or the 1949; Seated Miner [Oil on canvas, 130 x 95cm]:

And not truly realising his artistic journey through a war torn Europe to the end production of his most renowned works.

This exhibition, beautifully curated by Sarah MacDougall within the hidden gem which is the Ben Uri Gallery, St Johns Wood, takes the viewer on a detailed biographical journey following Herman’s fleeing passage which prompted him to leave Poland from the mounting anti-Semitism groups to his significant life in Wales, (which as they say; the rest is well known history). This current showing is the largest exhibition of Herman’s work to date, revealing works that have possibly never been witnessed or exhibited publicly before. MacDougall takes great care not to bore the viewer with prominent images that we know Herman was famous for producing (like the miners series), but allowing the gallery to be filled with detailed works showing the life behind the artist; to see his exact influences to produce what we know as Josef Herman.

The exhibition is placed on two floors, (though the gallery supplies a computer screen for visitors unable to access downstairs of the images on show) and divided between four parts which eloquently transposes Herman’s 6 years of forced emigration from Poland to Wales. This exhibition is also accompanied with a beautiful detailed catalogue with further unseen works and written essays from these exact periods of Herman’s life, well worthy of the money to purchase and impressively compiled together also by Sarah MacDougall.

My Favourite painting from this collection of work has to be Josef Herman’s 1944; Self Portrait in Mirror, a remarkable and quietly haunting image of the artist whose dark eyes pierce outwards to the viewer behind the smudging darkness of the shadows around his face- a mesmerising and intriguing painting.

Seeing this work of Josef Herman; understanding the journey he endeavoured to his producing of the Welsh Miners paintings (which can be viewed at the National Gallery in Wales) and knowing his moving philosophy of painting; he painted because he had something to say about life and made work to have a resonance in today’s world, for me, has the beauty of illuminating the working man; his work and his life, and as recent events have unfortunately occurred in the village of Cilybebyll, South Wales; the death of that raw beauty only to be remembered through images.

A truly stunning exhibition to celebrate the work of Josef Herman, a must see for anyone with an interest in contemporary art. “WOW, I think this is a stunning exhibition that I’d want to come back and see again and again!” Jeremy Isaac

Images courtesy of The Ben Uri Gallery; and Bernard Mitchell.

Josef Herman Exhibition is on at the Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, St John's Wood until 15th January 2012.

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