Drawing by Josef Herman OBE RA
pencil and coloured wash
collection of Leyden Gallery
Josef Herman OBE RA was a polish realist painter born in Warsaw into a Jewish family, on 3 January 1911. Herman attended Warsaw Academy for two years before working briefly as a graphic designer. After the outbreak of World War II, he escaped to France and then to Britain. It was years later when he found out that his entire family had perished in the Jewish Ghetto due to Nazi prosecution. The grief of losing loved ones led Herman to begin work on the series he called A Memory of Memories, mostly works on paper in which he recalled the life he had left behind in Warsaw. Two years later, Herman came to the realization that ‘the nostalgia for my childhood years had burnt itself out and nothing had taken its place, except a vague feeling for big forms and a cry within me for a new belief in man’s serenity.’
In 1944 Herman went on a trip to Ystradgynlais in Wales which he expected to last a fortnight but instead he stayed in this Welsh mining village for 11 years. Herman experienced an artist’s epiphany and found new inspiration in the miners and field labourers he encountered there. He was immediately at home with its closely-knit mining community. Every morning he would sketch the miners and their families, creating works that capture the grandeur and sadness of the working man, the dignity of manual labour, and the ‘monumentality’ of everyday life that he respected and wanted to honour.
This drawing owned by Leyden Gallery depicts two laborers harvesting crops in the field. The figures, sketched out with loose pencil lines, bend over with their backs against the viewer. Herman conveyed a sense of secularity without even depicting the crop field as background for the drawing. Because as for Herman he was not interested in the depiction of picturesque landscapes, but the landscape only insofar as it supports people. By the feet of the farmer we can see the shape of a basket and this is the only element in the drawing that suggests their occupation; apart from that the figures remain anonymous and generalized. Herman rendered them with such little attention to detail that they resemble slabs of stone, and by doing so he celebrates the monumentality of the mundane and everyday life that endures itself through relentless difficulty.