Josef Herman

Three Miners


Not on display

Josef Herman 1911–2000
Oil paint on wood
Support: 343 × 521 mm
frame: 475 × 645 × 55 mm
Purchased 1953

Display caption

In 1944 Herman moved to the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais where he recorded the life of the miners and the village community. He noted in 1946 that ‘although at first sight like other workers, the miner is more impressive and singular. Sometimes I thought of old Egyptian carvings walking between sky and earth, or dark rocks fashioned into glorious human shapes, or heavy logs in which a primitive hand has tried to synthesise the pride of human labour and the calm force which promises to guard its dignity.’

Gallery label, September 2016

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

Three Miners 1953


Oil on wood 343 x 521 (13 ½ x 20 ½)

Purchased from the artist through Roland, Browse & Delbanco 1953

Josef Herman, Roland, Browse & Delbanco, London, September-October 1953 (18)
Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings 1940-56, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, March-April 1956 (36)
Josef Herman: Retrospective Exhibition, Camden Arts Centre, London, January-March 1980 (67, as 1952-3)
‘Down to Earth’: Paintings and Drawings by Josef Herman, Elizabethan Exhibition Gallery, Wakefield, July-August 1988 (no number)

Tate Gallery Report 1953-4, London 1954, p.21

Robert Heller, Josef Herman: The Work is the Life, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 1998, p.49 (colour)

In our coal is stored the energy of the sun itself, captured by forest plants and trees two hundred and twenty million years ago. It was this energy, suddenly released, that brought about the greatest change in the face of Britain. Now our civilisation depends on coal – industry, transport, power and all things made of iron and steel would not exist without it.[1]

Such was the official description of the ‘Minerals of the Island’ pavilion at the Festival of Britain exhibition which housed Josef Herman’s six metre long mural Miners, 1951 (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea). The mural was by way of a summation of his work to date and, although tiny by comparison, the subsequent Three Miners may be seen to address similar issues in the same context. Herman had been living in the South Wales mining village of Ystradgynlais since 1944 and his intimacy with life there, specified in his solo exhibitions of 1946-9,[2] underwrote his reputation. By these means, his work staked a claim for authenticity and a direct experience of the life of the worker which was verified by his acceptance within the community.[3] The description in the Festival of Britain guide presented a rather different, though not unrelated, view in the official and industrial-archaeological language redolent of the exhibition. It was symptomatic of the post-war spirit of reconstruction, through which the Festival itself was seen as a ‘review of Britain’s contribution to world civilisation in the arts of peace’,[4] and was sternly optimistic about the state of things portrayed. Of the working of the coal face, the guide continued: ‘To-day, even these operations are being done by machines of steel; and rapidly the mines – still an essential artery of industry and wealth – are becoming clean and safe.’[5] Such a tone was circumscribed by the nationalisation of the mines implemented by the Labour Government in January 1947.

Herman’s characterisation of the life of the miners was more essential. One of his earliest supporters, Philip Hendy, described the mural in the pavilion thus:

With their rough-hewn features catching the warm light above their drab, square bodies, and the strong colours of their neckerchiefs flowing between, they see to it that humanity still dominates the machines and the models [of the exhibition]. ... Herman’s picture ... dominates without gesticulation. Its calm only increases its carrying power. His simplification only intensifies the meaning of the theme because he understands it to the full.[6]

The identification between the workers’ body and the earth in colour and texture, was here combined with a sense of communication through understanding. This was subsequently taken up by other commentators on the painter, so that in 1956 Basil Taylor could characterise ‘the image of the Man of Labour which emerges from Herman’s mould’ in similar terms:

He is something sturdy, rooted, a creature in which both stability and energy, gravity and liveliness are balanced; in the description of his physique, weight and the exertion of weight is important, his outline is abrupt, his shape chunky, without being aggressive; he displaces air, treads the ground, clenches his fist, shoulders his spade without rhetoric or the urge to conquer. In this he reflects Herman’s own presence, his energy, good humour and physical expressiveness.[7]

Such an identification of subject and artist could encourage the further comparison: ‘His line is as efficient as a spade and like a good tool its value is functional’.[8]

Three Miners was completed in the summer of 1953,[9] and, in common with a swathe of Herman’s works of the time, engages with the themes set out in the 1951 mural and preceding works. It shows the figures of the title resting seated on the ground, their white shirt sleeves and helmet lamps creating a rhythm across the composition. They are solidly formed and deliberately various in their poses – profile, facing and backing – and together fill the low composition like a shallow frieze. This effect is enhanced by the parallel strips of ground, middle-ground and the asymmetrical hulk of the coal tip set against the sky. The forms are all outlined in black and, although Herman is often associated with a dense working of the surface, the paint is applied thinly. The hardboard panel seems to have been prepared by the artist himself (the nail heads along the bottom edge protrude) and made use of its warm colouring which is visible through the ‘streakily brushed imprimatura’.[10]

Herman was an inveterate draughtsman, drawing miners at work and rest, above and below ground. As such his project in Ystradgynlais echoed the wartime series of coal-miners by Henry Moore and tin-miners by Graham Sutherland, both of 1942. Herman has been generous in his admiration of Moore’s earlier shelter drawings (from 1940) which initiated the theme, noting in them ‘a terse beauty, an elegiac power and a heroic structure’.[11] As distinct from this enwrapment of passive shelterers, all three artists sought to capture the purposeful action of miners in their claustrophobic spaces. This is true of some of Herman’s sketches made down the pit,[12] but his longer and more thoroughgoing familiarity with the miners’ working lives was reflected in less dramatic settings. This is epitomised in the exhaustion of the break found in Three Miners, in which Herman’s strategy of creating a synthesis of types and setting them to dominate the landscape is apparent. The enforced intimacy of the confined space in working the coal seam is found in a number of sketches which the artist gave to the Tate,[13] but others show the transposition of these figures to the earth’s surface where they achieve a heroic scale. The central figure of Three Miners assumes a pose – one hand and leg on the ground, the other elbow resting on the raised knee - found in many related works, including the Tate Gallery’s The Pit Pony, 1958-9 (T00354) and a sheet of several sketches, Untitled: Miners.[14] More significantly, the whole composition is worked out in a small ink and wash drawing, Untitled: Three Miners Seated on the Surface, which Herman later inscribed: ‘the painting done later after this drawing [is] in the Tate Gall.’[15] He dated it retrospectively to 1951, thus linking it to the Festival of Britain projects.

The relationship between the drawings and Three Miners confirms Herman’s synthetic approach to his subject. Specific details were gathered but came to establish a more general whole. Although the painter must have known each individual in the village, his painting shows the miners as types of the working man; even the dark form of the tip behind is a testimony to their efforts. Such a concern with archetype of labour coincided with the post-war programme of nationalisation, which promised the coincident benefit of production and control. While this echoed the artist’s life-long leftist political views, he remained independent of the dogma which he associated with Socialist Realism, the art officially sanctioned by Stalinist Communist parties.

This position was not without its difficulties, as the opposition of realism and abstraction became a cause for debate in the early 1950s. Supporters of modernist abstraction, such as the painter and critic Patrick Heron, asserted the ‘autonomy’ of art,[16] and contrasted it with art determined by political ideology which, in the context of the Cold War, was dismissed as propaganda. This debate circled around conflicting views on the support for abstraction offered by the Arts Council, as well as focussing upon such politically charged events as the Sheffield Peace Conference (1950) and the sculpture competition for a monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner (1952). The Marxist art critic John Berger, who saw an ‘official’ Western modernism sanctioned by the sculpture competition, upheld the ‘engaged’ realism exemplified by the work of the Italian Renato Guttuso and others.[17] Berger saw Herman’s concern with labourers in this light but, in so doing, settled on what he perceived to be a weakness in the painter’s work. ‘The really significant fact’, he wrote, ‘is that Herman has spent many years painting miners as if they were peasants, instead of one of the most lively and militant sections of the proletariat.’[18] Despite his long-standing commitment both to realism and to socially determined subjects, Herman’s response to such supposed ideological back-sliding was to assert his independent vision. He told Edwin Mullins in 1967: ‘Both social reality and nature interest me for the emotions and moods they awake, and for the ideas they make the mind dream up.’[19] He has since drawn a more specific distinction between his establishment of archetypal figures and the sense of class struggle proposed by Berger: ‘I never painted miners or peasants as representatives of particular occupations. I aimed at something more like symbols of the human condition at once tragic and great.’[20] He had already elaborated this in 1960 when interviewed by Edouard Roditi. Repelled by ‘the Stalin-Prize-winning pictures depicting smirking miners in spotless and hygienic mines’ and by the ‘Ecole de Paris formalizations’ of Italian Socialist Realists (implicitly Guttuso), he proclaimed: ‘It may be true that miners need leaders rather than consolation, but no serious painter is out to supply either. Human labour is not a trifling matter. We are conditioned to labour. We have no choice. This is the tragic aspect of it.’[21]

Matthew Gale
November 1998

[1] Ian Cox, ‘Minerals of the Island’ in The South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain: A Guide to the Story it Tells, exhibition catalogue, South Bank, London 1951, pp.21-2
[2]Welsh Miners’: Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman; Oil Paintings by William Ratcliffe, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, London, September 1946; Miners at Ystradgynlais: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings by Josef Herman, Arts Council tour of Wales April-December 1948; and ‘Pictures of Mining Life’ by Josef Herman, Geffrye Museum, London, October 1949
[3] Basil Taylor, Josef Herman: Drawings, Jonathon Cape, London 1956, p.5; see also Josef Herman, Related Twilights: Notes from an Artist’s Diary, London 1975, p.103
[4] Ian Cox, ‘The Festival’s Centrepiece’, in The South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain: A Guide to the Story it Tells, exhibition catalogue, South Bank, London 1951, p.6
[5] Ian Cox, ‘Minerals of the Island’, ibid., p.22
[6] Phillip Hendy, ‘Art on the South Bank’, Britain Today, July 1951, quoted in Nini Herman, Josef Herman: A Working Life, London 1996, pp.104-5
[7] Taylor 1956, p.7
[8] Ibid.
[9] Tate Gallery artist’s questionnaire, 15 February 1954, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[10] Tate Gallery conservation files
[11] Josef Herman, Related Twilights: Notes from an Artist’s Diary, London 1975, p.87

[12] E.g. untitled drawings, 1944, reproduced in Josef Herman, The Early Years in Scotland and Wales, Llandybie 1984, pp.92-102; see also Herman drawings, Tate Gallery Archive 835.10 – 835.12

[13] E.g. Crouching Miners, and Untitled: Two Miners Resting on the Floor, Tate Gallery Archive 835.9, 835.72
[14] Tate Gallery Archive 835.96
[15] Tate Gallery Archive 835.100
[16] Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World: British Art in Postwar Society, London and New Haven 1998, pp.40-1
[17] James Hyman, ‘A “Pioneer Painter”: Renato Guttuso and Realism in Britain’, Guttuso, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1996, pp.44-7
[18] John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, London, 1950, revised ed. 1979, p.92

[19] Edwin Mullins, Josef Herman: Paintings and Drawings, London 1967, p.8

[20] Juliet Steyn, ‘Josef Herman: Interview’, Aspects: A Journal of Contemporary Art, no.13, winter

1980-1, [p.4]

[21] Josef Herman in Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London 1960, p.175


You might like

In the shop