Josef Herman's father was a cobbler in Warsaw. He grew up with men toiling around him at their various tasks. Their heavy limbs swung with the actions of their labour. Years later, in the valleys of Wales, he saw again great pillars of men at work. Josef Herman felt a great commitment to make us aware of their strength and their oppressed state. His paintings celebrate their solid forms with lines and wash that make massive sculptures of them. He also finds room to show us their backs bent and hunched as they sit at the pitheads. The men are propped against the walls like buttresses or great stone wedges.
For the decade between 1944 and 1955 Herman lived in Ystradgynlais, a Welsh mining village. His description of the miners includes both their sadness and their stoutheartedness. He set to work to capture this with his gentle, pervasive expressionism. He took up pastels and added them to his usual pen and ink. Much of his instruction for this pastel work he found in the techniques used by Degas, using Degas's method of underpainting to enrich the surface color. He discovered that he could make a new velvet-black by underpainting with black and using black pastel on top.
A new technique by itself is of little use unless it tends to enrich the expression of the artist's inner world. Realism never tempted Herman. He tried to purge his work of all trivia. His aim has been to make more than a record of man and nature. His notes come from nature, but he allows time to pass before he joins together those notes and the fragments of memory. These sifted images have incised the deepest impressions on his mind. His final work emerges as the product of this brooding distillation and gives his work great stature.
We have lived through decades of visions of a labour-free future. We don't seem much nearer that dubious goal. Labour may be so much the warp and weft of life that people feel lost without it. Herman depicts men whose very destinies seem bound to labour. To him it matters little if he is painting a Welsh miner, a Scottish fisherman or a Burgundian peasant. Their industries are peripheral. In their appearances he finds a common link; in their faces and their bodies are the signs of their manual kinship. Their faces hold the hard-written truths about their way of living.In one sense the loss of their labour would mean the loss of their dignity, and a more subtle oppression might follow.
The blunt weight of miners, drawn by Herman with a dense mass of tone and dark lines, roots them firmly to the ground. He avoids the stolid massivity of Cubism in a manner that pays homage to the lithe frames of the men. For Herman these men are not mere inhabitants of the earth, they are part of its very substance.