The Polish Jewish painter Josef Herman, who settled in the UK as a refugee, is best known for his monumentally blocky paintings of Welsh miners whom he depicted empathetically while living for over a decade in a Welsh mining town, starting in 1944. Now a centenary exhibit, “Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-1944” traces the artist’s trajectory before he reached Wales. It’s on view at the Ben Uri Gallery: The London Jewish Museum of Art until January 12, and has already produced an eye-opening catalog.
Unlike the voluminous stasis of his Welsh miners, Herman, who died in 2000 at age 89, saw his Jewish forebears as a society in full motion, dynamic and vivid with a baroque or rococo sensibility. In the 1940 painting “Jews Dancing,” figures hurl themselves around in ecstatic abandon with defiantly macabre vigor as if aware that for European Jews, any dance then was a dance of death. Unlike Chagall’s shtetl denizens, Herman’s are too dynamic to care about being winsomely charming. Herman’s figures move energetically even when sitting still, as in “The Explainer,” a drawing from c. 1940-43, in which a bearded man makes a dramatic hand gesture to better drive home an argument.