Acquisition: Refugees by Josef Herman

Rare, important early Josef Herman painting acquired by Ben Uri

Ben Uri has acquired Refugees (c. 1941) a rare and important early painting by Polish-Jewish émigré Josef Herman (1911–2000), which symbolizes not only the plight of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, but the wider displacement of peoples uprooted and forced into exile as a consequence of war.



The work was acquired with support from the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Art Fund. It has a particular resonance for the museum, which focuses on Art, Identity and Migration and was among some 70 important exhibits exploring these themes as part of Ben Uri’s Centenary exhibition at Somerset House in 2015.

Examples of Herman’s work from his best-known years in Ystradgynlais, South Wales, c. 1945–1955, were included in Ben Uri’s 2015 exhibition Refiguring the 50s: Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Eva Frankfurther, Josef Herman and L S Lowry.

About the painting

Josef Herman (1911–2000)

Refugees (c. 1941)
Gouache on paper
Signed and titled on the reverse of backing board
Dimensions: 47 x 39.5cm (18 ½ x 15 ½ inches)
Provenance: Kenneth Martin; Christies, 1982; Estorick Collection, London via Grosvenor Gallery London

Purchased with the kind assistance of the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Art Fund.

A remarkable discovery, this painting is a hitherto ‘lost’ work from Herman’s important early period and part of the series he carried out in Glasgow between 1940 and 1943, known as the ‘Memory of Memories’.

It was exhibited at Herman’s first solo British exhibition in Glasgow in October 1941, reprised in Edinburgh, in February–March 1942, and listed in the catalogue as (no. 22) Refugees.

Works from this period are extremely rare since Herman later destroyed the majority of them, repudiating what he perceived to be the influence of Chagall.

The dominant blue palette and moon motif are both nostalgic evocations of his lost Warsaw. The painting draws strongly on the artist’s Eastern-European Jewish heritage, as well as his expressionist roots. David Herman, the artist’s son, describes the family shown as uncaningly reminiscent of known images of his family members who perished in the Holocaust.  

The Painting Even I Didn’t Know: read the article by Josef Herman’s son David Herman’s published in the Jewish Quarterly.

About the artist

Josef Herman was born into a poor Jewish working-class family in Warsaw, Poland in 1911, training at the Warsaw School of Art (1930–32). He established a life-long interest in portraying working people, co-founding the left-wing artistic group, ‘the Phrygian Bonnet’.

In 1938 he fled Poland, eventually settling in Glasgow, where, between 1940 and 1943, together with fellow Polish-Jewish refugee Jankel Adler and others, he contributed to a remarkable wartime artistic renaissance in the city.

In 1942 Herman learned through the Red Cross that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. Although he had already begun the powerful body of work on Jewish themes, this now darkened to include works specifically referencing pogroms.

In 1943 he moved to London, bringing the series to a close, holding his first London exhibition with L S Lowry. In 1944, after a chance visit to the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais Herman experienced an artistic epiphany, and made his home among this close-knit, hard-working community for the next eleven years.

About the collection

This work joins eleven others by Herman in the collection, including two works on paper from his important early years: the pen-and-ink sketch Musicians, from around 1940 to 1943, and a portrait drawing of the Yiddish poet, Avram Stencl. However, Refugees is the first significant Herman painting from this formative period.

Find out more about Josef Herman and his work in the Ben Uri collection