`A walking monument to labor'

THE workingman has been Josef Herman's persistent subject. His paintings, by means of a scale and massiveness usually associated with sculpture, have invested the laborer -- still in essence the peasant of the fields, though sometimes in such guises as miner or fisherman -- with an earthy magnificence hardly attempted even by such predecessors as Courbet or Millet. Herman's own articulateness tends to preempt anyone else who writes about his work. He has written about the significance to his vision of upbringing in a Jewish working-class home in Warsaw. He tells of spending summers among the peasants in the Carpathian Mountains with a group of artists. Later, he painted in Belgium, in the mining country of the Borinage.

He saw his work as ``a revolt against the sheltered intimisme of the leisured classes,'' against the kind of painting in Poland that derived from the French artists Bonnard and Vuillard. His own inclination is toward art as a ``moral responsibility, a kind of rhetoric rather than an aesthetics.''

From 1944 to 1955 he lived in a Welsh mining village called Ystradgynlais. He first came there apparently by chance, but was overwhelmed by his impressions of it, particularly of suddenly seeing a group of miners cross the low bridge, its railings and cement blocks contoured with gold from the yellow disk of the setting sun, and the miners silhouetted almost black. To him these laborers seemed something between iconic saints and frightened cats. It was a vision strong enough to make him sense in it the ``course of his destiny.'' His wife and he went to live in Ystradgynlais.

``This image,'' he wrote in italics in his book ``Related Twilights,'' ``of miners on the bridge against the glowing sky mystified me for years with its mixture of sadness and grandeur, and it became the source of my work for years to come.'' He began to work ``from scratch'' as though he had never drawn or painted before.

The ``Tired Miner,'' dwarfing chimney, house, and bridge by his prominence, stands like a colossus against the Welsh sky, and yet in spite of being seen as a giant, he is also presented by the artist as a rough, heavy, working human being.

On more than one occasion Herman has used the phrase ``a walking monument to labor'' to describe the miner. But he does not just apply a 19th-century statuesque heroism to the figure of the workingman. He is no ``socialist realist'' and dislikes the aesthetic that uses academic ``realism'' to deceivingly present workers as simply clean, happy, and delighted with their lot.

While disclaiming gloom in his own work and outlook, he has nevertheless written into his vision something of the ancient notion of the human race being inescapably condemned to labor. But both his fisherman of 1960 and his miner of 1948, however much these men are defined and bowed and exhausted by the nature of their work, are transformed in the imagination into images of massive and vigorous strength.

It is Herman's imagination that makes these pictures memorable; that, and his determination to concentrate on the essential power of his images rather than any distractingly observed detail. The paintings are, in fact, from memory. Herman makes only notes before the subject. Later, it is what he sees when he closes his eyes that matters -- ``a simplified image, deep, synthetic,'' with a form that has ``the grandeur of a symbol.''

During his years in Wales, Herman began exhibiting his work at a London gallery called Roland, Browse and Delbanco. He made lasting friendships with its directors, particularly with Dr. Henry Roland, who had ``fewer doubts'' about his work than he had himself. The two paintings shown here were recently exhibited in a show called ``One Man's Choice'' at Edinburgh's Gallery of Modern Art. The ``one man'' was Dr. Roland, and he chose five Herman paintings from his collection to be included in this wide-ra nging but personal exhibition. ``Tired Miner'' was the first work by Herman he bought -- its ``expressive power'' attracted him. Of ``Fisherman Drawing Nets'' the collector comments: ``. . . a visual equivalent to Hemingway's `Old Man and the Sea.' '' Perhaps there is something of that writer's laconic potency of statement in Herman's direct identification of bold image with bold feeling.

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