Josef Herman

Mexican Peasants, 1968

Ink and wash on paper
20.3 x 25.5 cm

JOSEF HERMAN  Polish/British, 1911-2000

Josef Herman was a highly regarded Polish/British realist painter. His work often had subjects of workers and was inherently political. He was among more than a generation of eastern European Jewish artists who emigrated to escape persecution and worked abroad. 

In 1938 at the age of 27, Josef Herman left Poland for Brussels where he was introduced to many of the prominent artists working in the city. After the beginning of World War II and the German invasion of Belgium, Josef Herman escaped to France and then to Great Britain.

Josef Herman first lived in Glasgow before moving to London for a time. There he met numerous other European émigrés, such as the Hungarian Michael Peto, with whom he became friends.

Josef Herman's own style was bold and distinctive, involving strong shapes with minimal detail.

Josef Herman studied working people as the subjects of his art, including grape pickers, fishermen and, most notably, coal miners. The latter became a particular interest for Herman during the eleven years that he lived in Ystradgynlais, a mining community in South Wales, beginning in 1944. He became part of the community, where he was fondly nicknamed ‘Joe Bach’.

When commissioned in 1951 to paint a mural for the Festival of Britain, Josef Herman took coal miners as his subject. His work Miners (1951) showed six men resting above ground after their work. Josef Herman said: I think it is one of my key pictures and the most important one I did in Wales. The mural is held in the permanent collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, affiliated with the Swansea Museum.

Because of his health affected by the damp climate, Josef Herman left Wales in 1955 and lived briefly in Spain and then in London.

In 1955 Josef Herman moved to Suffolk with his partner, Nini Ettlinger, whom he married in 1961. The tragic death of their young daughter prompted them to move away and from 1972 Josef Herman lived in the house in West London where he died in February 2000.

In 1981 Josef Herman was awarded an OBE for services to British Art and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1990.