The Painting Even I Didn’t Know

I had never seen the painting. I had never even heard of it. My father never mentioned it to me. But as soon as Sarah MacDougall at London’s Ben Uri Gallery, showed it to me, Refugees, I knew my father had painted it and I knew he almost certainly painted it in Glasgow in 1940 or 1941. 

My father was the artist, Josef Herman. Born in Warsaw in 1911, he left Poland in the late Thirties. He went to Brussels and then Paris and when the Germans invaded France in 1940, he managed to escape to Britain, ending up in Glasgow. 

In later years, he was best known for his paintings and drawings of working men: coal miners, fishermen and peasants. He belonged to a great tradition of European artists who from the mid-19th century depicted the dignity of labour: from Courbet, Millet and Van Gogh to the Flemish Expressionists and the German artist, Käthe Kollwitz in the early 20th century. Most people familiar with my father’s work associate him with these pictures and for over thirty years whenever art critics wrote about him, they discussed these images. 

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Then in the 1970s some old drawings turned up in his studio, buried under piles of sketchbooks and canvases. They were completely different. It was as if they were drawn by someone else. These were pen and ink drawings of Jewish life from my father’s childhood in Poland, pictures of Polish street life, peddlers, street musicians and rabbis. There were images from his beloved Yiddish literature, the stories of Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, and, more troubling drawings of Jews fleeing pogroms. He called these evocative drawings, Memory of Memories.

There were paintings too. He painted Sabbati Zvi, Purim Players and in two portraits, his father and his family, all killed during the Holocaust. The paintings were completely different from his later work. No monumental images of working men resting at the end of a backbreaking day. No glowing sunsets. No statuesque figures, with the distinctive blank faces and labourers’ hands.  Everyone in these newly discovered drawings and paintings was recognizably Jewish. The palette was completely different: dark blue skies, a white crescent moon, pale faces with dark, haunted eyes. 

Then a few days ago the Ben Uri Gallery announced that it had acquired a previously unknown painting by my father. Called Refugees, it depicts a family in the foreground – father, mother holding a baby, a young girl. They are fleeing for their lives, probably from a pogrom. There is the same distinctive blue sky, the same bright moon, the same staring dark eyes. There are, however, also unusual features which I have never seen in any of his paintings. There are tall spires which immediately places the townscape in eastern Europe: Poland or perhaps one of the Baltic republics. The father carries a rolled-up rug or blanket. All that survives of their belongings. Above all, at the very centre of the painting, is a huge black cat with a mouse in its jaws and drops of blood falling onto a pink roof. The brutal image symbolises the battle between hunters and hunted that haunted a generation of Jewish refugees, including my father. 

After the mid-1940s my father never painted such images again. In all the years he wrote for The Jewish Quarterly, from its first issue in 1953 which featured some of his drawings, through to the 1980s, he never wrote about the fate of his family. He died when I was in my forties. Never once did he talk about these things. This painting and the works from wartime Glasgow are all that tell of the experience that was at the centre of his life. 

A number of Josef Herman paintings are currently on display at Ben Uri Gallery’s exhibition Refiguring the 50s: Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Eva Frankfurther, Josef Herman and L S Lowry which runs until 22 Feb 2015.

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