Josef Herman

Pregnant Woman with Friend


Not on display

Josef Herman 1911–2000
Pastel, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 648 × 895 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

Josef Herman was born in to a jewish family in Warsaw in 1911, but left Poland for Belgium shortly before the Nazi invasion in which his family perished. In 1944 he settled in the mining village of Ystradgynlais in South Wales. Herman had nothing obvious in common with the Welsh mining village, yet he experienced it as a ‘home-coming’.

The features of the austere man-made geography of Ystradgynlais – the bridge, the slag heap, the people and the trees – recur through a series of paintings and pastels that formed one of the most widely appreciated artistic achievements of post-war decades.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Josef Herman 1911-2000

Pregnant Woman with Friend 1946


Pastel, pencil and watercolour on paper 648 x 895 (25 ½ x 35 ¼)

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1981

‘Welsh Miners’: Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman; Oil Paintings by William Ratcliffe, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, London, September 1946 (12, as The Pregnant Woman)
Miners at Ystradgynlais: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman, Arts Council tour April-December 1948, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, Miners’ Welfare Centre, Glyn Neath, Educational Settlement, Pontypridd, Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil, Bangor, Maesyrhaf Educational Settlement, Trealaw, Rhondda, Brynmawr Arts Club, University College, Aberystwyth, Coleg Llandrindod, Llandrindod Wells, Educational Settlement, Pontypool (9, as Pregnant Woman above a Town)
Paintings and Drawings by Martin Bloch and Josef Herman, Ben Uri Gallery, London, February-March 1949 (5, as Pregnant Woman above the Town)
Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings 1940-56, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, March-April 1956 (91, as Pregnant Woman above the Town)
Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, May-July 1975, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh, July-August, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Aug.-Sept. (12, as Pregnant Woman and Friend)
Josef Herman: Retrospective Exhibition, Camden Arts Centre, London, January-March 1980 (13)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.126

The establishment of Josef Herman’s artistic reputation in Britain may appear meteoric in retrospect as, remarkably, he had exhibitions in the three successive years following his arrival in Glasgow in 1940 as a refugee. As well as the good fortune (of which he writes in his autobiography)[1] which led him to meet potentially sympathetic supporters, this emergence is partly explained by the development of his major preoccupations in the preceding years in Warsaw and Brussels. After a period of introspection following his flight from the continent, it was a London 1946 exhibition of pastels made in Wales which brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. Although the exhibition was entitled Welsh Miners,[2] Pregnant Woman with Friend was included under the simpler title The Pregnant Woman. The artist retained the work until its purchase by the Tate Gallery thirty-five years later.

The exhibition was the result of two years’ work in the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais, where Herman had settled in 1944. In retrospect, he understood his move there in terms of the personal crisis which followed the shattering news of the extermination of his family by the Nazis. He characterised his response thus:
The more the earth was shaken by the convulsions of warfare, the more a voice seemed to cry out within me for a new belief in human dignity. For me, art and morality have never seemed very far apart. Then, in 1944, chance led me to this mining village of Ystradgynlais, in South Wales. The serene simplicity of its life, the constructive grandeur of the landscape, above all the monumental dignity of its men and women, all these at once set my imagination to work.[3]

The sense of community and labour returned Herman to the preoccupations which had given rise to his art prior to his arrival in Britain.

Working initially in charcoal, he had taken up pastel ‘probably’, as he recalled thirty years later, ‘because pastels are the most direct medium of drawing with colour’.[4] This recollection is born out by passages in Pregnant Woman with Friend where broad areas have been drawn with the flat side of the pastel stick.[5] The drawing does not appear to have been fixed and is therefore rather vulnerable, while post-war shortages may be reflected in the low quality of the paper which was stuck down to board.[6] Despite this the use of the new medium represented a distinct departure for the artist, and Herman has written illuminatingly about his technique of working over watercolour.[7] In evolving this method, the crucial precedent was Degas, who (as Herman explained) used a similar overlaying but achieved colour intensity through an Impressionistic juxtaposition.[8] On a return trip to Glasgow, Herman was able to inspect Degas pastels which his friend Dr T.J. Honeyman (curator of the Glasgow Museum) had had unframed so as to expose the edges of the sheets and thus the superimposed layers of media.[9] Herman modified the approach he discerned there in order ‘to get from each colour a richness ... independent of its neighbouring colours’. He proposed:
for instance, for a full-blooded cadmium red I would underpaint with a burnt sienna, and for a vermilion, with a yellow. In this way I could get from pastel a red as luminous as a flame. Sometimes I would even underpaint cold colours with warmer tones and let them come through the thinly-applied pastel. Thus cool colours, too, achieved a gleaming effect. I also found out that a good effect could be achieved by underpainting the same colour as the colour of the pastel I intended to use: thus black pastel over black watercolour produced a new kind of black never seen before except in velvet.[10]
While the painter denied that ‘technique per se is an objective quality which ... can be applied mechanically’, his account exposed various important points. His investigations emerged from a process of deliberation and research, which was then adjusted through increasing familiarity with the medium over the years 1944-6. His account also suggests how imagery and technique coincided while the composition was being conceived so that the underpainting could anticipate and prepare for the final effect in pastel. It seems likely that sketches were crucial in this process.

Close inspection of Pregnant Woman with Friend substantiates these points. Pencil appears to have been used to outline the composition (visible around the top of the mountainous coal tip in the background) and was certainly used to reinforce details such as the faces of the two women. Varieties of cool and warm underpainting and overlaying are evident: blue under the dark grey of the upper part of the sky, ochre underlying the blue area of the horizon, and pink with grey on top for the three cottages at the centre of the composition. Though in the foreground, the women are predominantly dark and it is the flash of brilliance in the middle-ground – the pink, blue and green cottages to the left and the deep blue and green of the bridge and river – which helps to throw their figures into prominence.

Furthermore, as the account published shortly after acquisition makes clear,[11] Pregnant Woman with Friend was anticipated by a number of related drawings amongst those which Herman gave to the Tate Gallery Archive in 1983.[12] The artist inscribed Untitled, Pregnant Woman with Friend[13] as one of three sketches specifically relating to the large pastel. This pencil drawing shows the two main figures in the same positions standing at the right; the detail of the faces has encouraged the speculation that it was ‘apparently drawn directly from a chance observation’.[14] The poses were taken up in another drawing in black ink and blue pastel.[15] A third drawing Pregnant Woman in Landscape sets the women, much as in the finished pastel, in front of a sweeping view of the town and coal tip.[16] The belly of the woman, who somewhat wistfully looks up into the sky, forms a bold block against the background. This sequence of sketches suggests the evolution of the composition which was then reinvented in the final pastel. Such a conclusion is only qualified by the dates allotted by the artist in the 1980s to each of these drawings; both of those with the pair of women were dated to 1945 but Pregnant Woman in Landscape was attributed to 1948.

The drawings were combined with observation of village life in making Pregnant Woman with Friend. The pastel has been related to the passage in Herman’s radio broadcast of 1946, ‘A Welsh Mining Village’ (published in Welsh Review, June 1946),[17] in which he described an afternoon in the street: ‘Then, on the Teddy Bear Bridge, I met three pregnant women. Their shapes were enormous and of earthy beauty. Next to them all Venuses would look but pale girls. Looking at them, Walt Whitman would have repeated his psalm-sounding phrase: “And I say there is nothing greater than mother of man.”’[18] Fecundity, in this account, binds together the earth and its inhabitants. In considering the pastel, Herman has acknowledged an analogy between the pregnant woman and the tip behind, giving a sense of the fertile earth.[19] He has also remarked - despite the implication of the 1946 text - that this may not have reflected his thinking at the time even though this observation, originally voiced by John Berger, seemed appropriate.[20] A significant aspect of the 1946 text that may be overlooked is that this fecundity is juxtaposed with mortality (a man reporting the loss of his son); thus Herman concluded the description of the pregnant women: ‘The three mothers of man talked of death.’[21] This conjunction of life and death is hardly implied in the pastel, unless it is seen in the dark tonality habitual to Herman’s work or the looming tip. However, such cycles may be seen as underlying his wider choice of subjects where the individual is subsumed in archetypal forms.

The sense of archetype in Herman’s work has parallels with the distillation of the composition through preparatory drawings. This may be linked to his frequent rejection of realism as a pictorial style, claiming for his work a sense of synthesis infused with imagination.[22] In Pregnant Woman with Friend, the view over Ystradgynlais is restructured to achieve a hierarchical disposition of spaces. The women stand on a wedge cutting across the foreground and linked to the framing device of the tree at the right (elements present in Pregnant Woman in Landscape). That this is not topographically accurate is suggested by a title used in early exhibitions, Pregnant Woman above a Town,[23] and the sudden change in scale to the four figures on the bridge behind. Instead of conventional perspective, the river bordered by cottages is composed in complementary angular forms which zigzag to the looming mass of the tip. That the relationship between village and tip – between life and work - is masked by the figures is appropriate as well as allowing the formal unity between foreground and background through which space is condensed.

Herman has spoken of the human domination of the landscape in his work.[24] Although, confusingly, he used the Welsh valleys and the Carpathian Mountains in Poland as examples, his interest appears to lie in the imposition of a human order through work on these difficult landscapes. This he expressed through selections from a limited set of recurrent markers of the landscape: the asymmetrical coal tip resembling Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire, the mine machinery, the bridge, the terraces of cottages and the telegraph poles. In such settings his figures were massive and monumental, expressing a ‘human dignity’ and a heroic sense of the worker. Such monumentality was, he stressed, independent of the actual size of the painting, with massive scale being possible in quite small works.[25]

The artist claimed a special monumentality for the subject of Pregnant Woman with Friend. He noted the massiveness of the pregnant body, adding mischievously: ‘Women in the valleys are very secretive about sex – but they could not disguise their pregnancy.’[26] Furthermore, he suggested that it was a near-permanent condition.[27] Although he made drawings of nudes from local models, aspects of motherhood and domesticity, fertility and nurturing were the defining roles for women as seen by Herman. This attitude was of its time and reflected the closed community. More profoundly it also reflected the artist’s own concern with family – already present in the dominant mother of his poignant My Family and I, 1940-1 (private collection)[28] – which his second wife, Nini Herman, has analysed in terms of Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theories as having a determining role on his artistic expression as a means of ‘reparation’ for a disintegrated childhood.[29]

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Josef Herman, Related Twilights: Notes from an Artist’s Diary, London 1975

[2] ‘Welsh Miners’: Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman; Oil Paintings by William Ratcliffe, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, London, September 1946
[3] Josef Herman in Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London 1960, p.173
[4] Herman 1975, p.92
[5] David Fraser Jenkins, inspection notes on acquisition 1981, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[6] Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Herman 1975, p.92-3
[8] Ibid., p.92
[9] Notes from an interview with David Fraser Jenkins, 11 February 1981, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[10] Herman 1975, p.93

[11] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.126

[12] 159 Herman drawings, Tate Gallery Archive 835
[13] Tate Gallery Archive 835.31

[14] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.126

[15] Untitled, Pregnant Woman with Friend, Tate Gallery Archive 835.48, reproduced in Josef Herman, Notes from a Welsh Diary 1944-55, London 1988
[16] Pregnant Woman in Landscape, Tate Gallery Archive 835.27, reproduced ibid.

[17] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.126
[18] Josef Herman, ‘A Welsh Mining Village’, Welsh Review, June 1946 republished in Herman 1975, p.104; see also Josef Herman, ‘The Years in Wales, 1944-1953/5’, Scottish Arts Review, vol.13, no.4, 1972, pp.13-14

[19] Interview with the author, 30 September 1998
[20] Notes from an interview with David Fraser Jenkins, 11 February 1981, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[21] Herman 1975, p.104
[22] Herman 1975, p.91
[23] Miners at Ystradgynlais: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman, Arts Council tour April-December 1948
[24] Interview with the author, 30 September 1998
[25] Interview, 30 September 1998
[26] Notes from an interview with David Fraser Jenkins, 11 February 1981, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[27] Interview with the author, 30 Sept. 1998

[28] Reproduced in Robert Heller, Josef Herman: The Work is the Life, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1998, p.8 (colour)
[29] Nini Herman, Josef Herman: A Working Life, London 1996, pp.10-11


You might like

In the shop