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The Art of Lamentation: Josef Herman's Humanist Expressionism.

Writing about Polish refugee artists, Victoria Keller suggests that "through the experience of the exiles among us we can learn that there are other ways of feeling, other ways of understanding history and other ways of using the creative ability for expressive purposes." (1) The "exiles among us" refers to the "more than 300 painters, sculptors and graphic artists" whose flights from political oppression ended in Britain, from 1933 through its darkest moments as Fascism and Nazism threatened their lives and those of their families and communities. (2) Safe harbor, however, does not necessarily connote the end of feeling threatened. Rather, "other ways of understanding" include the tremulous, unending responses to uncertainty carried over from the menacing places where flight began. That refugee artists found inspiration in such insecurity offers a way of understanding their work as representing external danger in an art of acute and irrevocable anxiety. As refugee artist Josef Herman insists, art that commemorates "Victims of Tyranny [...] the most tragic theme in our history," must combine the dramatic with the documentary. (3) The impact of this refugee art is addressed by Margaret Garlake: "what role does art perform in our understanding of the cultural changes manifested by migration?" (4) According to Shulamith Behr and Sander Gilman, "What is vital for any understanding of exile culture in Britain after 1933 is that the radical disruptions [...] were clearly as much of the experience of the exiles as the shifting response of Britain to them [....] The new immigrants [...] brought an experience of alienation with them to an already discomfited Britain." (5)

Three paintings by Josef Herman that are the focus of this essay respond to his state of exile that began in 1938, when he fled Poland and was profoundly complicated by his loss of family and community destroyed by Nazi Germany's invasion and occupation. Like other East European artists who found a home in Britain, his art shows how his condition and identity as a refugee shaped his career. Although he painted many different subjects, this essay focuses on three paintings that I read as a narrative of lamentation and commemoration: Refugees (1941), Lear Destroyed (1964), and Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters (1974-1998). These paintings constitute his memory and grief for the loss of his family and the Yiddish culture that defined it, and his memorialization of those who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered by Nazism and wars of oppression. Over the course of his life, Herman's interpretation of the meanings of exile continued to both expand and intensify as he saw migration becoming a universal condition, whether voluntary or involuntary, for economic, religious, political, or any life-saving purpose. As Monica Bohm-Duchen posits, Herman's "vision transcended the particular to speak eloquently--and often poignantly--of universals. In a century marked by war, genocide and dehumanization, [...] his lifelong conviction that art, morality and spirituality are inextricable, that 'Man can never, under no circumstances, be viewed as a thing, or as a plaything for light' and that the 'object of art is to enrich life,' is more relevant than ever." (6) The paintings examined here express the universal meaning of exile as marking a constant but disruptive cultural force. If exile and art was already an old story in biblical narratives, Josef Herman shows us that it continues to challenge meanings of such contemporary theoretical terms as transnational, cosmopolitan, or such a prevailing and expansive literary category as modernism, high, late, or new. Rather than the open borders and self-determining experiences promised by transnational and cosmopolitan identity positions, Herman's exile, like that of other refugee artists, was a precarious one-way passage, determined by the restrictive immigration and resident policies of their safe havens. There was no possibility of return.

Artistic forms that we recognize as modernist are visible in the paintings by Josef Herman and others who carried their anxious creativity from Eastern Europe to Britain between the turn of the twentieth century through the 1930s. As Else Meidner's self-portrait demonstrates (fig. 1), this refugee art resembles various forms of modernist challenges to representing psychological and social unrest. Like modernists, Meidner, Eva Frankfurther, and other refugee artists interrogate how to define the nature and representation of multivalent and shifting meanings of external and subjectively conceived realities. (7) The difference lies in their memories of the past and their constructions of the future, with the present being the time and space of those constructions. The high modernists disavowed the past because they saw it as inseparable from state violence and its rhetoric, as well as from aesthetic and social constraints and conventions. They also renounced traditional cultural hierarchies that distinguished folk and popular culture from high art and from the aesthetic assumptions that social and psychological analysis could be represented transparently through realist conventions. By contrast, the aesthetic mandate for refugee artists is compelled by both a profound ontological sense of belonging and rupture from the past. For refugee artists, the sense of the past cannot be separated from identification with family and community, tradition and ritual.

Despite their constraints, these traditional social and cultural structures and their conventional practices are remembered as sustaining. Refugee artists interpret constraint as deriving from the violence perpetrated by political upheaval and persecution. For example, Josef Herman's collection of drawings Memory of Memories begins with a depiction of rural serenity in "A Jewish Peasant Milking the Goat," moves to smiling images of his sister, and ends with "Memory of a Pogrom," suggesting the destruction of a harmonious past. The attachment of refugee artists to the past is therefore inseparable from its loss, whether in an unremitting state of anxious anticipation or belatedly. Refugee artists transform aesthetic constraints into lamentations and memorializations for their lost families, communities, and heritage. (8) In this sense, refugee artists are more closely related to such modernist art as Picasso's Guernica (1937) and Samuel Beckett's plays, which respond to the cataclysms of Fascist wars on civilians by creating visual and literary metaphors for the destruction of human agency and the landscapes that were once home. As Douglas Hall argues for Herman's refugee art of lamentation and loss, "This was not the baggage of some itinerant prophet of modernism." (9)

For British refugee artists, survival and then making a home and art in exile meant that their art would occupy a liminal space, between past and present. Josef Herman and Jankel Adler would express their experience of modernity as a revolutionary force that would include the idea and portrayal of violent rupture. (10) Their purpose was to revive and revise their own aesthetic fields of reference as humanistic. Having escaped the tentacles of Fascism, their art would reject its dehumanizing myths of a mechanistic, monumentalist modernity. Instead, a humanistic revolution is apparent in the exile art of Josef Herman, which, as Monica BohmDuchen attests, is "an example to us all [of] the deeply humane, egalitarian and ethical nature of his artistic vision." (11) Like so many artists and writers in the post-World War I and II eras, Herman and other exiled artists redefine what we mean by realism. It would no longer express the assumption that mimetic detail is transparently meaningful. But neither do the experiments of these refugees reflect subjective and historical realities that accord with the muses and mandates of high modernism. The violence to which East European exile artists responded was not battlefield carnage, and they did not register disenchantment with the enlightenment claims of western civilization that inspired high modernist aesthetics.

The Jewish artists who escaped to Britain in the 1930s were responding to an unprecedented, one-sided war to destroy their people and cultures simply for having been declared guilty of being Jews. In addition to lightning-paced invasions and land grabs, the violence that distinguished Nazi Germany's revolution was characterized by cultural conquest. The purpose of this aesthetic violence was to prove the supremacy of Nazi ideology and the supreme new reality it would constitute. (12) Its method consisted of erasing the art, books, and artists it declared degenerate. In this context, Jewish refugee art can be seen as an act of cultural rescue and regeneration.

Although Britain ultimately proved itself to be a haven for East European refugee artists, its government was ambivalent about rescuing them. Having interned many refugees as enemy aliens, this was nonetheless a far more welcome fate than what Nazism offered. (13) As Daniel Snowman recounts, there was also a social and cultural divide between Britons and refugees, including "the incomprehension with which [refugees] felt themselves regarded by their new hosts: the understatement, the double negative, the kind but controlled concern, tinged, perhaps, with a streak of muted xenophobia, all masking unawareness of the true nature and scale of the brutality from which the exiles had fled." (14) In turn, many refugees were ignorant of the British political structure, social customs, and artistic heritage.

Once the refugee artists settled in, in London and Glasgow in particular, the artistic circles they formed created a diverse aesthetic that offers intellectual, historical, and ethical challenges to American and British modernism in their time and ours. (15) Once the refugee artists found themselves unmoored from their homelands and from cultural, psychological, and political stability, their state of exile inspired visual experiments in painting and sculpture that both assumed and expressed the integrity of the human subject, an aesthetic that Josef Herman exemplifies as humanist expressionism. Although they would interrogate meanings of the human and appreciated the work of abstract analysis, Herman asserted the following:
I am more interested in building up a moral mood than in disturbing a
social atmosphere. [...] There is a whole range of experiences which
cannot be communicated other than through the human figure. But even
then, the artistic problem is one of differentiation between
representation and expression. Representation means objective
statement, absence of ideas, neutrality of art. Expression means the
presence of feeling, the presence of artistic purpose, the presence of
form. Thus form is not something which the subject has, but which the
artist brings into being. Through form, the subject becomes one with
the artistic image. Form, as I understand it, is a synthesis between
imaginative quest and absorbed observation. (16) (See fig. 2)

Herman's humanist expressionism, inspired by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Kathe Kollwitz, among others, creates a critical relationship between the feeling he represents and that which he invites in his viewers, a shared but challenging aesthetic and political terrain. Early in his career, in response to Herman's one man show in Glasgow in October 1941, his friend, sculptor Benno Schotz wrote: "Herman belongs to the Expressionist School of Painting, a school of painting which impels the artist to paint not merely the outward appearances of things, but to express in addition what he feels and knows about them... Those visiting this exhibition... may find this aspect of Herman's art strange." (17) For Herman, as with other Jewish refugee artists, "The concept of redemption through suffering, which was so much a concern of the Expressionist milieu, was personalized and defiantly transposed into a new critical imperative." (18)


Born in 1911 in Warsaw, Josef Herman fled Poland in 1938 after he was arrested one too many times on charges that could only be attributed to what we might call antisemitic determinism; that is, always and ever presumed guilty of such charges as craven economic power and treachery. As he told a friend, "I felt oppressed in Poland, under its Fascist regime, both as [a] liberal and as a Jew." (19) He first went to Brussels, but when Germany invaded in May 1940, he managed to find safe haven in Glasgow where he lived until 1943 when he moved to Wales, where he made his artistic reputation painting Welsh miners. From there, in 1962, he and his second wife Eleanore (Nini) moved to a coastal village in Suffolk, and finally to London. His presence in Glasgow was not unique, since the city had become a haven for Jewish refugee artists, including Adler, Eva Frankfurther, and Else Meidner, among others. Yet none of their experiences constituted a smooth journey to rescue. In the democratic West to which they fled, there were questions of whether emigres were legally and culturally refugees if they had left their homelands voluntarily or if their religious, racial, or ethnic persecution was not considered political endangerment.

Once they arrived in Britain, many emigres sought to attain formal status for the benefits of status and security that it carried, but this was difficult to achieve. Migrants had to demonstrate that they were selfsupporting, a nearly impossible feat since few had any money. Otherwise they were required to have a sponsor or a job offer, either of which was rare. Complications abounded with the need for a work permit, which for artists especially, was often short-term or project-linked. (20) As the number of applicants increased in 1938, the year of Herman's escape, visas and work permits became subject to escalating restrictions and the possibility of cancellation. When war broke out, tribunals were set up to interview and classify resident aliens. Initially very few were interned, but after the fall of France in May 1940, large numbers of well-intentioned foreigners were locked up as a result of growing panic about "enemy aliens." (21) Unlike other refugees, Herman was not interned, but various (albeit ambiguous) reports indicate that after enlisting but experiencing antisemitism in the British-based Polish army, he spent some time in a Polish refugee camp in Norwood, London in 1940. (22)

He later assessed his safe harbor in Glasgow as follows: "In time I came to love the city. But these were lonely years [...] years of fears. Language was the barrier. [My artist friend Jankel Adler and I] were Yiddish-speaking, we were both from Poland, hence we could look into each other's faces with understanding. In the company of others we were a conspiracy of two." (23) But he also reflects, "I was reborn here. This island is an excellent school for living, in particular for living with freedom and with oneself." (24) As Douglas Hall observes, "There is a touch of retributive--or perhaps redistributive--justice in Herman's succts d'estime and economic security in this country, relative to most of his compatriots with more privileged beginnings." (25) Although Herman escaped the deportations, ghettos, and camps designed to destroy all of Europe's Jews, and although he found a supportive artistic community in Scotland, his imagination was haunted by those who were trapped. His art mourns the vibrant Yiddish culture that was destroyed and which he wanted to depict "as faithfully as a chronicler, though always in colours and scenes that also expressed my own nostalgia for a vanishing past and a deep sense of sympathy for the millions of Jews who had remained in Eastern Europe and who were being systematically starved, humiliated and extinguished." (26)


Herman's nostalgia was neither mythic nor romantic. It does, however, register a profound historical consciousness and identification with a place or origins, a homeland that is remembered as indelibly knowable, if no longer reachable. Milan Kundera's novel Ignorance defines nostalgia as originating in classical Greek etymology as nostos and algos, expressing "suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return," but also acknowledging the "pain of absence" that Herman expresses in so many of his paintings. (2) As Hall notes of Herman's nostalgia and implies for his "outpouring of Jewish images in Glasgow in 1940," it "also embraces the awful and the sad." (28) For Herman, according to his wife Nini, "The history of Poland lies embedded in nostalgia: an ongoing, disrupted dream." (29) A primary if embedded subject of Herman's painting is the progressive political agenda that was persistently interrupted by fascist assaults and the vicissitudes of world war. His yearning for the Jews' economic progress, for wider secular education, for greater political equality with non-Jews became his "disrupted dream." Although he did not locate specific political sites of this progress, he carried and represented both his hopefulness and sense of loss to Wales and other parts of Britain where he expressed these feelings in his humanist expressionist paintings of miners.

Although Herman is best known for his paintings of the Welsh miners he lived among for several years, critics have observed how their somber coloration, tone, and heavy sculpted humanistic figures are invested with his unending mourning for the loss of East European Jewry and culture (fig. 3). When asked by the Jewish Quarterly, "Has the destruction of one third of the Jewish people affected your attitude to life, to art?," he responded:
I am very much aware that I am a survivor. I was not there. And by
there I mean the dark everywhere, the ghettos, the camps and the
inescapable roads to the gas chambers. I doubt whether we shall ever
get over Auschwitz. I have no desire to get it over, nor to forget.
Auschwitz may have darkened modern humanism, then humanism never had
any good reason to be bright. Tragedy and hope have always intermingled
in my work. For all it is worth, I may now be a bit harder on the moral
issues involved in being a painter. (30)

Herman's most explicitly memorializing painting of entrapped Jews, Refugees, resounds with this "darkened modern humanism," but with vibrant color and movement (fig. 4). Within this vibrancy, the figures are painted with solemnity, registering both a celebration of their humanity and a sorrowful nostalgic loss. This duality may be resolved by his statement that for him, "Painting is not an aspect of seeing but of feeling." (31) That this distinction is central to understanding his art and that of other British Jewish refugee artists is apparent in his statement that he was not "afraid of incoherence, inconsistencies, repetition." (32) For Herman, because the logic of feeling is all encompassing, a holistic representation of the artist's and subject's unmediated, uncensored autonomic human responses, it is therefore authentic and persuasive.


Such feeling permeates Refugees, which was painted in 1941 while Herman was safe in Glasgow, but anxious about the fate of his family. (He learned a year later they had been killed by the Nazis in the center of the Warsaw Ghetto where their home on Sliska Street was situated.) Far from the scene of Nazi crimes, he imagines the feelings of terror embodied by imperiled Jewish families as they attempt to escape. At the same time, the painting instantiates both his nostalgia and anxiety for his lost family, home, and culture. In combination, the painting becomes a lamentation for his lost Eastern European Jewish heritage that would inform all of his art from then on.

The question of how Herman expresses the Jewish self under siege and on the run is informed by Sander Gilman's discussion of R. B. Kitaj, who, like Herman, emigrated to Britain, but from the safety of the U.S. (33) Concerned with how Jewish diaspora art in the 1950s and 1960s is distinctive, Kitaj insisted on its Jewish figuration as opposed to "'universal' forms such as abstraction and minimalism as a means of self-definition." (34) Like Kitaj, Herman paints the Jew "as a nomadic body [that] is never fixed into a romanticized space [and] is by definition understood as different, as a body on the periphery." (35) Gilman's point about the nomadic body is persuasively applicable to Herman's Refugees as "an evocation of a distanced past as a nostalgia for the body of the past." (36) Extending this interpretation, Refugees can be seen as nostalgia for humanism.

Refugees is a painting that provokes, but will not allow us to discover any stable meanings that will cohere or be bound by a linear narrative. The figures resemble folk tales or cartoon characters, recognizably human, but neither conventionally realistic nor abstract. For Herman,
Jewish artists were never hiding their Jewishness and whenever they
needed to reinforce their European vocabulary with folkloristic
elements, or use our age-old symbols, they did so as a matter of
course, with simplicity, with dignity [...] but at no time did they
attempt to break out from the boundaries of the wider European artistic
development. Changes in European trends immediately affected the works
of Jewish artists. Unlike the Mexican national school or the modern
Flemish school, which had rich traditions to fall back upon, Jewish
artists [...] had none. Their schooling, their techniques, their styles
were, and remained, European. With many this duality of purpose and
belonging produced inner conflicts. (37)

Refugees shows that for Herman, such "duality of purpose and belonging" was aesthetically and emotionally productive in allowing his own "inner conflicts" to be expressed.

Yet he also stresses the significance of Jewish traditions for his own art and among other British Jewish refugee artists. In conjunction with these artists, he notes that Jewish traditions were embedded in more general European trends. For example, he discusses how in the 1930s Chagall and Adler stressed the originality of Jewish iconography and "decorative value of our folk art and our traditional objects. Thus Jewish art became something specific, rooted in the everyday life of the Jew, in particular the Eastern European Jew." (38) Although the brightness of Refugees' colors reflects Herman's joyful memories of childhood steeped in Yiddish culture, the "years of the sun," he also drew his memories with a paradoxical combination of enduring attachment and an anxious watchfulness for the perilous "unforeseen," suggesting "some premonition of darkness that lies ahead." (39) Herman would ascribe this paradox to "the temperament of the Jewish artist," which would inform his vision of an inherently Jewish subject and one that is subject to the contingencies of historical forces. (40) The tableau of Refugees recalls those of Chagall, the Russian Jewish modernist, about whose influence Herman reported:
There was the inevitable Chagall. He handed over to the youth of my
generation a living charm, a hypnotic lore, an identity which hitherto
only Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater possessed [....] I remember
the poet Moishe Broderson writing an epigram: "Chagall Chagall, you are
our source" (41)

The Chagall that interested Herman was not the sentimental folkloric vision of a free-floating fiddler on the roof, dancing merrily to klezmer's rhythms. Instead, Herman looks to Chagall's darker vision so that the musical accompaniment to Yiddish culture is now a dirge. This is evident in Herman's mordant rendering of Chagall's fiddler in the painting of the early 1940s, Purim Players, where the fiddler is about to be overcome by a narrowing space and the face of the reveler is defined by a menacing grimace (fig. 5). In Refugees a feral cat stalks a terrified family and instead of celebrating the quaint shtetl with elegiac imagery, Herman depicts it as sinking under the weight of its doomed fate. The young daughter, crouched and peeping with terror-struck eyes from out of her mother's equally imperiled body, will not experience the rebellion of Tevye the Milkman's daughter. She will find neither cross-cultural romance nor freedom in the promises of immigration to the West. Having already snared a victim, a rat or mouse hanging from the cat's jaws recalls antisemitic Jewish cartoons depicting Jews as vermin needing to be exterminated. The cat stalks the refugee family, never letting it out of its sight, recalling R. B. Kitaj's portentous assessment of the animal's symbolic meaning: "The black cat is bad luck," like the one in Manet's Olympia, a symbol of doom. (42) Despite Herman's affinity for "stillness," seen in the stoic figures of his Welsh miners, this painting trembles with the fretfulness of escalating entrapment. (43)

The black cat's dominance pushes the refugee family into the lower half of the frame, in short, overwhelming the family's subjectivity and escape attempts along with the idea of family as regenerative and of home as continuity. Home, depicted as a community of houses nestled together, is being crushed by the all-seeing cat; the houses look as they though they are sinking or being buried alive. The churches on the far right and left, with their black spires, bracket the human subjects, containing them. But since the church on the right is being swiped by the cat's tail, it suggests that neither shelter nor mercy and kindness are available. The figures are also already smeared with contempt by the cat, suggesting they are beyond hope or rescue. The father's mouth seems to be open, and with his hand pointing outward, it is as though he speaks of a reassuring destination but emits only silence. He is incapable of making a statement. The family suffers its own silence and that of indifferent onlookers. Herman commented on the prevailing presence of silence in his work: "Endurance and silence are as frequently in my landscapes as in my figure paintings. I do not need a war to make me think of heroism. It is our endurance of the everyday." (44) In the East European landscape of Refugees, the Jewish family is silenced, but it is not clear if they will endure the quotidian of being stalked, of being hunted prey. Instead, the Jews' everyday experience consists of having their identity and culture presumed guilty, as confirmed twice over: by the manifestations of Polish antisemitism which Herman fled and by the German occupation of Poland, which exploited local Polish-Jewish tensions by remapping Poland as a death warrant. The family has no grounds for defense. As in his 1942 drawing Memory of a Pogrom (fig. 6), Herman's lamentation is weighted with accounts and memories of Jewish persecutions as they begin in the ancient past, as they are represented in the biblical Book of Lamentations, and as he interprets them expressionistically as a memory trace and their fate as a nightmare. With no waking resolution for comfort, Herman's lamentation questions the value of nostalgia.

Expressing a profound and continuous sense of loss, Refugees reminds us that it has been six years since the 1935 Nuremberg Laws designated Jews as poisonous and therefore destructive to Germany's empire, which in this painting they attempt to flee. In their resemblance to each other, the block figures are indeed a family, but they are also robbed of individuality; they embody the effects of Nazi racialist groupthink. These Eastern European Jewish refugees are stunned by the cat's darkness that looms overhead; they are identified as always and everywhere alien, on the move but trapped by unstoppable menace. The painting's quiet but tremulous stillness suggests a yearning for recognition of the family's human dignity and authenticity, but the static figures, as though frozen in their tracks, also bring to mind the iconic image of the Wandering Jew, circling the globe, stopping here and there, but accepted nowhere, always alien and therefore despised. Neither rest nor homeland is in sight. The refugees are on the road from oppression to uncertainty--in flux--in uncertain transition, as though nearly paralyzed by the stalking blackness of Nazi persecution. Their block forms remain insubstantial, as though their strange languages and customs have nullified their presence. Out of terror, Jewish culture, signified by the bundle of blankets, is concealed and precarious, but undeniably corrupt in the ideology of the pursuer. Even as we might hope that the refugees will find safe harbor, omnipresent danger ensures that there can be no certainty of acceptance, of how to deport one's Jewish self in an environment that insists on suppressing one's difference to earn the right to belong. That Herman's expressionist art is always politically inflected, confronting his viewers with the plight of the oppressed is suggested by Pierre Rouve's 1975 review of one of his one-man shows: "Born to be a servant of the senses, Expressionism has become in Herman's hands a weapon of the mind." (45)


A mournful example of Herman's provocative humanist expressionism is a painting that he produced when his Welsh friend, the poet and sculptor Moelwyn Merchant, asked him to participate in an exhibit celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth (1964). (47) He responded with hear Destroyed (fig. 7), which began inauspiciously but is reminiscent of Refugees with the "shape of a bundle":
A sad human bundle [....] Eventually the human bundle lay passively
amidst rocks and stones on bare earth, a heath on which nothing could
grow. With this much to go by, I began painting, in the distance, far
from the human bundle, on the horizon, I painted the Fool sitting on a
low heap of pebbles playing a flute, totally unconcerned with Lear's
fate. The sky, lyrical and soft, an eventide all rose and red, the
colour of a peach, like the Fool, nature too was unconcerned with
Lear's lot... There exists no such scene in Shakespeare's King hear.
But everything in the second act suggests the gradual intensification
of Lear's loneliness and grief which culminates in the wretchedness of
madness. Except for the moment of dying, human isolation cannot go
further. (48)

Herman's provocative interpretation of Lear assumes a multifaceted ambiguous form. A dark figure of Lear, shaded and seemingly flowing seamlessly between brown and black, contrasts and yet blends with the rose and red background to such an extent that it is not clear where the somber and the "lyrical and soft" begin and end. With multilayered complexity, Lear's outlines and that of the background seem to overwhelm each other so that each seems threatened by the loss of self-generating power of will and action. Although Herman claims that there is no such scene in Shakespeare's play, the painting's ominously overwhelming background points to Kent's response to the heath's "fretful elements" in Act III, Scene 1: "Things that love night / Love not such nights as these. / The wrathful skies / Gallow the very wanderers of the dark / And make them keep their caves." (49) The painting's avowed lyricism becomes an aggressive force in keeping with the barren, hostile heath, "The to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain," "The tyranny of the open night," and the Fool's unconcern. (50) Lear is defeated by the indifference of both the natural world and of humanity merging with his own outsized rage that ultimately breaks his spirit, Having destroyed the possibility of human connection, he is isolated from his own humanity. David Herman persuasively interprets Josef Herman's humanist art as expressing this isolation as integral to the individuality of his subjects: "He was a humanist in the sense of understanding something human, but very uncomfortable and disturbing about people. He saw people as social, longing for community as miners in a choir, or at work in the colliery, or the contact between husbands and wives, mothers with babies. But he also saw people as deeply alone, unbridgeably distant and apart. His humanism has something to do with bringing intimacy to aloneness. Only someone who had experienced--and continued to experience--such solitude could bring this to life." (51)

Ambiguity is also found in Josef Herman's figure of Lear. Huge and dark, his coloration engulfs his bodily representation. What is apparent is that the nature of Lear's humanity is questioned by his appearance as both human and animal--lionesque but passive, as though there was never any doubt about his defeat. If he is part of nature, one of its own, instead of being integrated into an evolutionary or organic cycle, he is pronounced destroyed with no chance of reasserting his place as a human power--a lion king. Hall's general statement about Herman's art is especially applicable to Lear Destroyed: "Herman, the religious sceptic, conforms [...] to the introspection and internalization that might be expected of meditative Jewish thought [....] his form emerges heavily and haltingly from the dark ground as if shaped by some first creator in the dim glow of hope." (52)

The relationship between this deeply muted hope and Herman's response to the Holocaust is evident in his statement, "Auschwitz, more palpably than the Inferno or King Lear, declared the helplessness of man in the face of evil." (53) As Monica Bohm-Duchen observes, this searing conclusion is momentously personal for Herman, representing his own "well-suppressed, inner turmoil," brought about by the knowledge of his family's decimation in the Warsaw Ghetto. (54) In light of this personal and historical linkage, Herman's figure of the fool playing his flute is also overdetermined. Positioned above and beyond Lear's figure, the fool is represented as a bystander to the king's suffering, "unconcerned with Lear's fate." Such indifference recalls the all too many responses to the unavoidable sights and sounds of Jews being rounded up and transported to the Nazi camps and killing centers. In its paradoxical iteration, however, the fool's music-making while Lear nears death echoes the music played by the orchestras at Auschwitz as the prisoners walked, unbeknownst to themselves, to the gas chambers. Whether this music offered the victims the illusion of comfort, we cannot know. For mourners like Herman, the fool's music is a bitter accompaniment.


Between 1974 and 1998 Herman worked on a large painting that evolved and intensified as the terrors of despotism did not end with the defeat of the Axis powers. Instead, old animosities and new tyrannies erupted and the idea and realities of liberation provoked another silent scream. Noting that his viewers would recognize "the significance I ascribe to silence," this painting represents "the spheres of half-nightmare and halfdream" that would characterize "the insecurity of our times." (55) Evolving over decades, the painting charts the consolidation of Herman's aesthetic, political, and ethical principles and artistic production. Originally titled In Memory of the Fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto (fig. 8), its meaning broadened with new titles: In Memory of the Holocaust Survivors; In Memory of the Holocaust Victims; A Witness to the Terror of our Time; and then as an "afterthought," Tribute to Goya's Black Pictures. (56) In each and all versions, the painting expressed Herman's need to incorporate the incessantly breaking news of unending tragedy, of those caught between oppression, destruction, indifference, and desperate attempts to survive. (57) The artist reflected: "I cannot get out of my mind the victims of our century of terror. Nor can I forget Auschwitz, nor the Moscow trials. My painting A Witness to the Terror of our Times began as a tribute to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, but the longer I worked on it I put in more emotions which wanted to cry out for all the victims of our times: the two million gypsies, the six million Jews, etc. The list is too long for a small page." (58)

That Herman chose a figure of a woman to represent this long list is telling. We know from his journals and from Nini Herman's biography that a key figure in Herman's life work was that of the female nude (fig. 9). The figure of the woman victim does not, however, romanticize her anatomy; nor does it gesture towards a new version or critique of the classic odalisque. This figure can neither recline in repose nor even suffer a prurient gaze. Standing awkwardly, as though forced to her feet, the woman is isolated from an art history of desire or exploitation of female beauty. Despite the suggestion of her breasts pressing through her ragged chemise, the only erotic desire her nudity suggests is outside the painting and its frame, but present by implication: that of the perpetrator responsible for her tortured body. Her arms are raised in anguish and terror, recalling Herman's drawings in 1945 of women whose arms are also raised in unbridled anxiety. The woman in Ghetto Fighters is almost pushing through the confines of the frame, as though struggling against imprisonment, her open mouth emitting a silent scream that recalls that of Edward Munch's terror-struck figure. But whereas Munch's figure represents a state more aligned with existential pain, imprisoned in her paradoxical state of paralyzed running, Herman's suggests a desperate urge to escape external oppression. Her silent scream also suggests what we as viewers will never hear. Instead, there is an auditory absence in this narrative of political torture, an unbridgeable gap between suffering, representation, and viewing.

The female figure dominating this large canvas is obviously a victim, but she is also a fighter. She has been objectified by oppression, but she asserts the integrity of her own response. The somber background coloration reminds us that for Herman, "Colour is the connecting force between pigment and emotion." (59) There is a thickness to the pigment that suggests layers of torment and struggle. The woman's blackened face and hair recall faces of the Welsh miners emerging from the pit, but, unlike them, she has no reprieve and no community to endow belonging. She is isolated from the reality and very idea of comrade or community. She will never emerge from the depths of her oppression. She faces destruction, not respite. Panic and outrage define the figure who has been brutally denied the dignity Herman recognized in the miners and their work. Whatever she has and will suffer, she still fights back. Yet to the question, "Who were those soldiers without hope?" Herman answers: "This was the Jew who made use of the last freedom left to him: the freedom to choose. He chose neither death nor life. He chose his dignity." (60) Herman goes on to write, "In the ghettoes of the forties with the last fires and the last fight lies a great part of our inheritance [...] Those that took part in the uprising that spring of 1943 did not fight with any hope of winning. To perish is not the worst that can befall an individual [....] They rose to save the vestiges of their dignity, hence of human dignity as well [....] Their desperate slogan was 'we have to die. We shall not die as cattle.' The word MAN meant more than survival." (61)

In the process of creating and revising this painting over decades, it became a palimpsest of the century's political oppressions. It is in the process of painting and reworking Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters over so many years that Herman expresses the irrevocable continuum of terror that grips his subjects and that serves as his muse. As Herman would say of the 1961 Warsaw Ghetto Exhibition, this "was not propaganda. It was factual." (62) In its revisions, his painting assumes a voice that in taking shape as color and form, penetrates silence with his fierce condemnation and his figures' struggle to overcome abject isolation and abuse. If his subjects could not bear witness, the art he created in his displacement in exile becomes his witness stand. The facts of persecution and suffering are Herman's reality and the painting's style his expressionist humanism entwined with documentary testimony. Although he did not suffer the ghettos and camps, Herman has identified as "a survivor": "I have no desire to get over Auschwitz or to forget. Auschwitz may have darkened modern humanism, then humanism never had any good reason to be bright. Tragedy and Hope have always intermingled in my work." (63)

Interlaced with his humanist expressionism is another reality and relationship--that as spectators, we occupy a position that challenges us with the question of whether our viewing can ever be detached even when it is a matter of scholarly analysis, situating the painting in modern cultural history. Art historian Fran Lloyd proposes a way of addressing this question in her discussion of Holocaust art, which presents an
uncomfortable foregrounding of the physical and psychological act of
spectatorship. Through narrative and composition, the focus is on the
'macabre stage' [...] that the artist [is] forced to watch [....] As
viewers we also look on. The directness of this act of looking [...]
raises questions about how we, as the viewer, respond to the depicted
figure [...] Historically, of course, issues around spectatorship--of
looking on or looking away--have been central to the understanding of
how the Third Reich continued to commit genocide on such a large scale
in Europe. In the context of Austria, where the majority of its
inhabitants welcomed the Anschluss, looking on becomes an even more
vexed act of complicity or ignorance. (64)

A significant implication of Lloyd's reflection is that we cannot only view Refugees, Lear Destroyed, and Witness to the Terror of Our Time as dispassionate cultural critics of twentieth-century art, for history intervenes with an ethical question. For example, what kind of knowledge can we gain from being onlookers to these terrorized Others? Even if the formalist and cultural categories of expressionism, modernism or realism offer accessibility and methods of analysis, where does that leave us in relation to the paintings' contexts and content--an endangered Polish Jewish family in 1941 positioned in the frame, huddled in fear, leaning from right to left, from Eastern European oppression towards the democratic West? A leader defeated by his own destructive rage and the indifference of others? A woman whose endangerment isolates her and reminds us of our position as helpless audiences? Regardless of the answer, as the terrors of the 1930s and '40s bleed into today and beyond, we confront a state of almost incomprehensible peril with no sign or mythic or realist symbol of hope or help. As Monica Bohm-Duchen proffers, "The emigres might not have created new movements or 'schools,' but they have certainly opened our eyes and widened our horizons--a fact for which England should be duly grateful. Certainly those who were once emigres have not forgotten what Emgland has done for them." (65)

The perspective of a refugee from Eastern Europe's tyrannies challenges that of modernists who privilege the subject's tremulous inner life or consciousness and proffer multiple facets of the human and our object worlds in simultaneous interaction. Refugee art calls our attention to the determining role of external political conditions on the physical, psychological, and ethical life of the human subject and the aesthetic drives of the artist. Herman's paintings and drawings position the artist and viewer in a relationship built on artistic forms that recognize the subject's pain, loss, and deprivation as integral to his and her humanity. Even as his subjects were imperiled by a dehumanizing racialist ideology and practices, Herman's response is to reaffirm their humanity by memorializing its enduring presence as a lamentation that confronts its irretrievable loss. Shaping our own responses as viewers is the ethical challenge of Herman's art to recognize the face, fact, and cultural significance of the oppression that marks but never diminishes the aesthetic innovations of twentieth-century East European Jewish cultural production.


(1.) Keller, "Review, Douglas Hall, Art in Exile? 77.

(2.) Powell and Yinzent, Usual journeys, 9.

(3.) Herman, "Commemorative Art," 36.

(4.) Garlake, "A Minor Language?," 167-68, 170.

(5.) Behr and Gilman, "Forced Journeys: Introduction," 12-13.

(6.) Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 9.

(7.) Else Meidner (1901-87) and Eva Frankfurther (1930-59) emigrated from Berlin to Britain in 1939, enduring menial domestic and manual labor. Meidner's work was belatedly recognized by the Ben Uri gallery in 2002 and Frankfurther exhibited at the Ben Uri, Clare Hall, Cambridge, and the Boundary Gallery in London.

(8.) Garlake maintains that "Whereas some leading emigre architects and artists have been studied in depth because of their contributions of modernism, the more numerous middle ranking artists have been largely overlooked."

(9.) Hall, "Josef Herman in Glasgow," 119.

(10.) Jankel Adler (1895-1949) was born in Poland and studied art in Germany, where he worked with Paul Klee but when the Nazis marked his work as "degenerate," he left for France, joining the Polish army when war started.

He was evacuated to c .lasgow where with Josef Herman and sculptor Benno Schotz, he joined the Glasgow New Art Club. His bid for British citizenship was rejected. His work has been recognized internationally.

(11.) Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 10.

(12.) Confino, A World Without Jews. Alon Confino argues that to present Germany as the originator of western civilization, Nazi supremacist ideology required the destruction of Jewish texts.

(13.) Bernard Wasserstein reports that when Germany invaded western Europe in May and June 1940, "anti-alien feeling [...] bordered on mass hysteria," motivating the "establishing of a 'protected' area along Britain's eastern and southern coasts, within which all male Germans and Austrians between the ages of sixteen and sixty were to be rounded up and interned." Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 87.

(14.) Snowman, The Hitler Emigres, 96.

(15.) For further discussion of Glasgow artists and the influence of Jewish refugees, see Braber, "Open Windows," 171-89.

(16.) Nini Herman, Josef Herman: A Working Life, 121.

(17.) Quoted in Bohm-Duchen, "The Art and Life of Josef Herman," 20. BohmDuchen notes that the strangeness was part of "the nationalistic cultural climate of wartime London," replete with "prejudices and preconceptions, and confusion" about the integration of Jewish culture into British. Bohm-Duchen, "The Art and Life of Josef Herman," 21.

(18.) Behr, "Klaus E. Hinnchsen: The Art I Histonan," 33.

(19.) Quoted in Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 29.

(20.) Garlake, "A Minor Language?," 169.

(21.) Garlake, "A Minor Language?" 168-69.

(22.) See Sarah MacDougall, "An Aura of Enchantment," 70; Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 42-43. I am grateful to David Herman for feedback on this and other issues and support of this essay.

(23.) Herman, Memory of Memories, 7.

(24.) Herman, "On Being a Jewish Artist," 7.

(25.) "Josef Herman," Art in Exile, 191.

(26.) Josef Herman, Memory of Memories, 5.

(27.) Milan Kundera, Ignorance, 5, 6.

(28.) Hall, Art in Exile, 194, 192-94.

(29.) Nini Herman, Josef Herman: A Working Life, 2.

(30.) Herman, "On Being a Jewish Artist," 7.

(31.) Herman, The Journals, 174.

(32.) Herman, The Journals, 175.

(33.) Gilman, "R. B. Kitaj's 'Good Bad' Diasporism," 228.

(34.) Gilman, "R. B. Kitaj's 'Good Bad' Diasporism," 228.

(35.) Gilman, "R. B. Kitaj's 'Good Bad' Diasporism," 231.

(36.) Gilman, "R. B. Kitaj's 'Good Bad' Diasporism," 231.

(37.) Herman, "The State of Anglo-Jewish Art Today," 24.

(38.) Herman, "Looking Back," 36.

(39.) Nini Herman, Josef Herman: A Working Life, 7.

(40.) Herman, "Looking Back," 36.

(41.) Herman, "On Being a Jewish Artist," 6.

(42.) Steyn, The Jew: Assumptions of Identity, 167.

(43.) Herman, The Journals, 81.

(44.) Quoted in Garlake, "A Minor Language?," 176.

(45.) Rouve, "Moral Symbols," 5.

(46.) Shakespeare, King Lear, 819.

(47.) I am indebted to Monica Bohm-Duchen's research for this background in The Art and Life of Josef Herman, 129-30.

(48.) Quoted in Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 130.

(49.) Shakespeare, King Lear, 804, 805.

(50.) Shakespeare, King Lear, 804, 806.

(51.) David Herman, "Bringing Distance to Life: Josef Herman," 62-66.

(52.) Hall, Art in Exile, 201.

(53.) Burns, "Portrait of the Painter Josef Herman," 39-41.

(54.) Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 131.

(55.) Quoted in Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 157-58.

(56.) Quoted in Bohm-Duchen, The Art and Life, 157-58.

(57.) I wish to thank the Ben-Uri Gallery, particularly Sarah MacDougall, who allowed me to view Ghetto Fighters while it was being prepared for exhibit and who offered her expert feedback on my reading of the painting.

(58.) Quoted in Garlake, "A Minor Language?," 213.

(59.) Herman, The journals, 122.

(60.) Herman, "Who Were those Soldiers Without Hope?," 14.

(61.) Herman, "Who Were those Soldiers Without Hope?," 10.

(62.) Herman, "Warsaw Ghetto Exhibition: An Appreciation," 26.

(63.) Herman, "On Being a Jewish Artist," 7.

(64.) Lloyd, "Ernst Eisenmayer: A Modern Babel," 68-69.

(65.) Bohm-Duchen, "Introduction," 6.


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Phyllis Lassner is professor emerita in the Crown Center for Jewish and Israel Studies and the Gender Studies and Writing programs at Northwestern University. Her publications include studies of interwar, World War II, and postwar women writers, including British Women Writers of World War II (Palgrave, 1998), Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire (Rutgers University Press, 2004), Anglo-Jewish Women Writing the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2008), and essays on Holocaust representation in literature, film, and art. Her most recent book is Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She was the recipient of the International Diamond Jubilee Fellowship at Southampton University, UK, for her work on Holocaust representation. Her current research concerns Polish post-Holocaust film and British Holocaust theater. She is coeditor with Victoria Aarons of the forthcoming Palgrave Companion to New Directions in Holocaust Representation and Culture.
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