IT WAS in the 1980s in the Cork Street gallery of Browse and Darby that I stood transfixed before Josef Herman’s painting, Evening, Ystradgynlais. The colours glowed with an inner life, the subject, a river, a roadway with dark, homegoing figures and a sky aflame with copper light. The whole rich image was an icon, to which I was personally connected.
After some time the young American assistant approached. “You obviously like the painting,” she said. “It’s somewhere in Poland, I think. He’s Polish, you know.”
Oh, yes, I knew, for I had been equally awed when, as a toddler, I sat on Josef’s lap in my grandparents’ house in Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley. He was telling me a story about a melody that had come from Israel and then lost its way. Although I was too young to understand the deep significance of this tale I was held in awesome attention by Josef’s voice, rich and exotic as it was.
He had arrived in our village in 1944 after a chance meeting with local writer, David Alexander. Immediately he felt at home among this mining community, who, in a short time, were calling him, Joe Bach, a sign of their absolute acceptance.
Other émigré artists from Europe who settled in Wales at this time included Frederick Konekamp in West Wales, Ernest Neuschul in Mumbles, outside Swansea, Georg Mayer-Martin in Monmouth and Man Digging by Josef Herman Heinz Koppel in one of the more industrial valleys of South Wales. Like Josef, these artists brought with them a broader vision which enlivened Welsh art and still influences many young artists today.
My grandfather, the photographer, Llew E. Morgan, became one of Joe’s close friends. On many evenings after Joe’s regular 12-hour working day they would walk the Breconshire hills. Joe writes: “On the narrow road, high hills the colour of moss and a small sky. Walking with Llew all the way from Ystrad we talk about the strange attraction of isolated places.”
When Joe expressed a desire to see the miners at work, Llew arranged a visit to the local colliery. Joe sketched while Llew took the photographs. The artist’s empathy with the hardship of the miners’ working life formed the foundation of his own work — the miner