Josef Herman

The Pit Pony


Not on display

Josef Herman 1911–2000
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1118 × 1854 mm
frame: 1156 × 1886 × 59 mm
Purchased 1960

Display caption

At the centre of this frieze-like composition are a horse, identified by the title as a pit pony, and a man. Represented here as if almost one composite creature, they can be seen as symbolising Herman's vision of the union of working man and nature. The treatment of the faces and limbs of the miners in the foreground suggest that they, too, are part of the landscape. Over the course of the 1950s Herman had developed a more sculptural style, abandoning his earlier reliance on subtle modelling and chiaroscuro. He admired in such artists as Van Gogh, Rouault, Munch and Permeke, 'their instinctive non-aristocratic attitude, their popular spirit, giving even awkwardness its fair due'.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Josef Herman 1911-2000

The Pit Pony 1958-9


Oil on canvas 118 x 1854 (46 ½ x 73)

Inscribed ‘“The Pit Pony” | oil 1959 | 44 x 73 | Josef Herman’ on back

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1960

John Moores Liverpool Exhibition 2, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, November 1959 -January 1960 (42)

Josef Herman Paintings and Drawings: Retrospective Exhibition, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, May-July 1975, Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh, July-August, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, August-September (579)

Josef Herman: Retrospective Exhibition, Camden Arts Centre, London, January -March 1980 (85)
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-September 1984 (69)
‘Down to Earth’: Paintings and Drawings by Josef Herman, Elizabethan Exhibition Gallery, Wakefield, July-August 1988 (no number)

Tate Gallery Report 1960-1, London 1961, p.22
Timothy Hyman, ‘Josef Herman’, Artscribe, no.22, April 1980, p.41

London Magazine, vol.1, no.4, 1961, opposite p.81
John Rothenstein, Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.261
Ronald Alley, British Painting Since 1945, London 1966, pl.24
Edwin Mullins, Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings, London 1967, fig.22
Robert Heller, Josef Herman: The Work is the Life, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1998, p.53 (colour)

Josef Herman left Wales in 1956, after a dozen years working and painting in the mining village of Ystradgynlais. This remains the pivotal period of his career, in which his primary subject matter of labourers in their locality was established as a vehicle for a humanistic art depicted through archetypes. Ordinary working people with ordinary lives are monumentalised and shown to be heroic in their endeavours. Although he travelled extensively towards the end of this period, in search of warmer weather to ease his ill-health, Herman settled upon similar subjects wherever he went, from the vineyard workers in Burgundy to the peasants of Andalusia. Thus he maintained continuity within the variety of incidental detail, and it is not surprising that Welsh themes resurfaced even after he had moved away definitively. In 1960, just prior to the purchase of The Pit Pony by the Tate Gallery, Herman explained that it ‘was painted in London during the greater part of 1959 from studies I made during my years in Wales’.[1] Twenty years later, the artist presented nine preparatory ink Studies for ‘The Pit Pony’ (T03194-T03202) to the Tate Gallery and subsequently recalled that they had been made in Wales in ‘about 1953-4-5’.[2]

The question of scale has been one which the artist has addressed on a number of occasions and is pertinent to The Pit Pony which, at just over six feet in width, may be considered a substantial piece. Herman has stated his desire to repeat the opportunity of working on the size afforded by the six metre long (19 feet 8 in.) Festival of Britain mural, Miners, 1951 (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea), which he described as ‘my best single work’. However, he qualified this by explaining that small works can achieve monumentality: ‘I get immense satisfaction from painting large. Even when I paint a small canvas ... It is the inherent idea and not its physical scale that decides whether a picture is truly large.’[3] Even his method of working from brief sketches made on the spot and converting them into resolved compositions in the studio (whether drawings or paintings) was applicable to works of different sizes. Thus, the drawings for The Pit Pony are indicative of a comparable process to that in preparation for the tiny Three Miners, 1953 (Tate Gallery N06198).

The procedure was established even a decade before The Pit Pony was made. David Bell wrote in 1948:

Herman’s method is to make innumerable drawings, as notes, on what he sees about him, and as suggestions to himself of pictures. They are often no more than the visible form of his thoughts. From them in the seclusion of his studio he devises his pictures. And were the opportunity to offer for him to paint a large decoration we can imagine him using his pictures too as material for its design.[4]

It is unlikely that the Tate’s Studies for ‘The Pit Pony’ include such ‘notes’ but rather that they are part of the sifting of material in the studio. Many aspects of the composition are considered through these drawings, from specific details (e.g. Reclining Miner T03196) to their overall arrangement in relation to one another (Two Separate Sketches for Whole Composition, Pony at Centre T03197). The result is a synthesis typical of Herman’s Welsh paintings. In being completed some time later and with the benefit of his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956,[5] it may be seen as contributing to the conclusion of that period. The foreground is dominated by three typically heavy-limbed miners, rooted to their positions by the poles behind them. The re-use of earlier compositions suggested by Bell may be found in the ubiquity of these poses in Herman’s work; the right hand figures, for instance, closely echo the earlier Two Miners 1955 (private collection).[6] The indeterminate space between the foreground figures is closed by the pit pony and handler. The drawings show how the pony was shifted further into space even as it remained central to the composition; they also show how the landscape lost its topographical specificity (the road to the coal tip marked by telegraph poles) to become more generalised.

It is typical of Herman’s practice that the handling of the paint in The Pit Pony serves to unite the surface in contrast to the implications of depth. A tension is thus established between composition in depth and across the shallow frieze-like foreground. On this scale, the figure groups might appear somewhat isolated within amorphous areas but the power of handling resolves such problems. The unusual fluidity of the paint-work reflects Herman’s use of oil paint without the underpainting in tempera used in earlier works and may also be a function of the size of the canvas. In places the handling is cursory on close inspection and only resolved as part of the whole. This is especially evident in the shifting layers of the mask-like faces, where the lighter planes are superimposed on a linear structure sketched in dark tones. The reduced facial features may be related to precedents in the artist’s renowned collection of African carvings, notably his oval Lega mask with schematic features within its oval form.[7] The coverage of the breadth of the canvas is also various. The layers are superimposed quite casually with rhythmic brushstrokes and resolved in broad terms. The sky is quickly worked in ochre and the ground plane is thinly painted in bluish browns and greens (towards the bottom corners). The areas around the figures are more worked and the heaviest impasto is reserved for the highlights on the figures’ shoulders and legs, their helmets and the pony’s back. White also appears to have been over-glazed in brown in the legs of all the men, and an uncertainty in the resolution of their feet is evident.

Herman was identified with the subject of Welsh miners from the mid-1940s and his sustained depiction of them as emblematic of manual labour coincided with the post-war debates about the ideological engagement of modernist art. The context of Cold War polarisation was particularly fraught in the early 1950s. In the face of an equation between abstraction and the freedoms available to individuals in the West, those retaining realism and with sympathies on the political left had to balance social commitment against the dogma of Stalinist policies on Socialist Realism. Herman’s position was one of individual research; ‘social reality and nature interest me’, he later told Edwin Mullins, ‘for the emotions and moods they awake’.[8] This approach was criticised by one of the artist’s most thoughtful supporters, the critic John Berger, who faulted him for ‘painting miners as if they were peasants, instead of one of the most lively and militant sections of the proletariat.’[9] Such an ‘engaged’ stance had not concerned Herman since his early years in Poland, and it was a view of the worker as a symbol of the human condition – as exemplified by the massive figure of a Tired Miner 1960 (Roland Collection)[10] - which was important to him. Beyond this, Herman was interested in the broader public activism of the late 1950s exemplified by the anti-nuclear Aldermaston Marches of 1958, of which he made a painting. In this politically charged period, the monumentality of The Pit Pony lends an authority to physical labour which may also be seen to be ideologically charged.

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Josef Herman, letter to John Rothenstein, 21 April 1960, Tate Gallery records
[2] David Fraser Jenkins, notes of a conversation with Josef Herman, 16 December 1983, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[3] Juliet Steyn, ‘Josef Herman: Interview’, Aspects: A Journal of Contemporary Art, no.13, winter 1980-1, [p.4]
[4] D[avid] B[ell], ‘Foreword’ in Miners at Ystradgynlais: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council tour of Wales, 1948 [p.6]
[5] Josef Herman, Paintings and Drawings 1940-1956, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, March - April 1956
[6] Reproduced in Josef Herman, Paintings and Drawings 1940-1956, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1956, between pp.16 & 17, pl.XXVII
[7] Lega small mask, reproduced in Miniature African Sculptures from the Herman Collection, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council 1985, p.18, no.5
[8] Edwin Mullins, Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings, London 1967, p.8
[9] John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, London, 1950, revised ed. 1979, p.92
[10] Repr. Robert Heller, Josef Herman: The Work is the Life, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1998, p.51 (colour)

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