Josef Herman: Drawing in the Highlands

08-09-1984 - 29-09-1984

'Josef Herman, among the best known artists working in Britain today, was born in Warsaw in 1911, the son of a cobbler. He left Poland in 1938 to live in Belgium, where he met the Belgian painter Permeke, who was to have an influence on his work. One exhibition was held in Belgium but, following the outbreak of the war, he again had to move, this time to France. With the Nazis, however, on the outskirts of Paris, he made for Britain and arrived in Glasgow in June, 1940, where he settled for the next 3 years. He was soon involved in the cosmopolitan Art life of the city at the time, associating with such personalities as Benno Schotz, JD Fergusson, the Polish painter Jankel Adler who had arrived a few months earlier, and Helen Biggar the sculptress. He exhibited at Connell's gallery, decorated one of the areas of the New Art Centre in Scott Street, designed the 'Ballet of the Palette' for Margaret Morris' Celtic Ballet, and generally exerted a considerable influence on a number of young Scottish painters, as did Adler.

When, in 1944, Herman moved to a small mining village in South Wales, where he was to remain for 9 years, the image of the Miner became the focus for his instinctive respect for the act of physical toil and survival. He depicted the Welsh Miners with a sense of drama and idealism, giving them a heroic and monumental quality. He has ever since been identified with these powerfully emotional studies, which he later extended with similar strength to the Mexican and Spanish peasants and fishermen. Wide recognition took his works into public collections throughout the world such as the Tate, the V&A Museum, and the National Galleries in Cardiff, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Melbourne, Ottawa and Wellington. And recently the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have acquired an important example from a new series of paintings.

But the popularly held opinion that Herman's mature style did not develop until his South Wales period might reasonably be qualified. There are in existence, for example, a number of Drawings of working people done whilst he was still in Glasgow and in similar style, and it was during this period also that he met and married Catriona McLeod from Skye. There followed numerous visits during the next few years to Skye and other West Highland islands and villages. Many drawings were made of the Outer Isles fishermen, who aroused in Herman the same admiration and respect as did the Welsh miners. Until now none of these drawings have been shown. And so, the present exhibition of some 42 of these works should have a special interest for people in Scotland, reflecting as they do, Herman's concern with a universally familiar subject, expressed in a Scottish context and in the artist's mature and individually robust style.' Cyril Gerber

'In the early autumn of 1942 I went for the first time to the Outer Isles of Scotland. The first stop had to be the Isle of Skye. Catriona, my wife then, like all Highlanders was strongly attached to her birthplace and she wanted me to see the Cuillins. All the way she enthused about the Cuillins: "Wait till you will see them, just wait..."

When we arrived the whole of Skye was covered was a stark, green mist. No Cuillins in sight. In fact nothing could be seen beyond the arms stretch. For the next few days I was continuously assured: "It will lift soon...It never lasts long..." It lasted long, long days...For me it seemed an eternity...Catriona felt like an impresario when the show goes afternoon, indeed, the mist began thinning out and soon lifted. The range of mountains emerged with the suddenness of a diver coming out of the depths of the sea...

At first the Cuillins looked soft, as though sagging and the edges were not very clear. Then the outlines, too, hardened and the whole splendid mass stood there before my eyes against a soft yellow light...To such memories one remains indebted forever...

But my still greater debt is to the Scottish fishing places which we often, since that autumn, visited, even long after we have left Scotland: Mallaig, then other places, Stornoway, and more places whose names I can no longer remember. But the recurrent images are still with me...A group of fishermen in yellow or black oilskins standing on shore, sitting in the boat or moving about their tasks. A dream-like tranquillity. A planet all its own. In the atmosphere of this planet one forgets the distant hustle and one is reminded of more durable rhythms. Each figure self-contained in grand form...Each group telling the simple tale of the human bondage...And all this is happening in slightly moist, soft Highland light.

Such were my feelings on these travels...

In time the Scottish fishermen alongside the Welsh miners and continental peasants were, at least to one man, a source of joy.'

Josef Herman