Josef Herman in Wales
Thu 17th Sep
'The talents of immigrants' is a series of four RISW talks this year on the creative benefits that incomers bring to the communities in which they settle. The theme was devised at a time when support for UKIP seemed to be at frighteningly high levels, but today, with mass movements of refugees across Europe, it seems even more relevant.
The first talk, on the Polish artist Josef Herman, was given by Carolyn Davies in the Dynevor Centre for Art and Design on 17 September. Carolyn is the Chair of the Josef Herman Foundation Cymru, which aims to unlock the creative potential of young people in the Swansea Valley and elsewhere through the celebration and use of Herman's artistic legacy. Several members of the Foundation came to the meeting, which was held jointly with the Friends of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery.
Josef Herman came from a Jewish family in Warsaw and quickly developed his talent for visual art. He left Poland in 1938, initially to find out more about Belgian artists, but the tide of Nazism and anti-semitism drove him from Belgium, first to France and then to Britain. All his family lost their lives in the Warsaw ghetto. A chance encounter, and a desire to experience life in a mining community, brought him to live in Ystradgynlais, where he and his first wife lived from 1944 to 1955. It was here that he developed his mature artistic vision. Carolyn described the moment that transfixed his painter's eye, when he observed miners returning from work across a bridge, silhouetted against the setting sun ('the magnificence of this scene overwhelmed me').
The result was a remarkable stream of oil paintings and pen and ink drawings of miners and other workers in and around the town - works which have come to symbolise the dignity and humanity, as well as the backbreaking toil, of ordinary people in the South Wales coalfield. His style was modernist, influenced by the continental artists he had studied, like the Belgian expressionist Constant Permeke, and by African sculpture, many hundred examples of which he collected.
Herman and his wife received a warm welcome in the community they settled in. Josef quickly acquired the nickname 'Jo Bach' in Ystradgynlais, and he became a very familiar figure locally as he documented the life and work of the inhabitants, sometimes following the miners underground in order to capture the detail of their labour.
The Foundation, based in Ystradgynlais, owns many examples of Herman's work, donated to it by the artist's second wife. Carolyn described some of the educational projects based on the artist's life and work, and a recent major project with the Tate Gallery, which will digitise the Foundation's collection. The Glynn Vivian also owns works by Josef Herman, including the massive oil panels entitled 'Miners', created for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Carolyn's talk stimulated an absorbing discussion, which touched on, among other things, the overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking nature of the town of Ystradgynlais in the 1940s, the strength of the Polish community in the Swansea area at the time, and the disparaging treatment of Herman's art to be found in Kingsley Amis's novel, That Uncertain Feeling.
Josef Herman was an outstanding example of a refugee who made a lasting contribution to the country and community in which he came to live. Thanks to the work of the Foundation and many others his art and his influence continue today, fifteen years after his death, in the Swansea Valley and far beyond.