It is baffling that during his lifetime and after his death, the South African sculptor Herman Wald received so little recognition. He was a distinguished representative of 20th century modernism who had received his training in Europe. After settling in South Africa in 1937 he participated in numerous group exhibitions and exhibited his work in regular solo shows including an acclaimed exhibition in New York. His public sculptures are prominent in Johannesburg and in Kimberley.
Yet his work was simply not absorbed into the course of art historical research. How could this happen? Unlike his contemporaries, Moses Kottler (1892-1977), Lippy Lipshitz (1903-1980) and Gerard de Leeuw (1912-1985), whose work at least is represented at the Sanlam Art Gallery, or his fellow-Hungarian Zoltan Borbereki (1907-1992), none of Herman Wald’s works was acquired by any South African public gallery. Yet he was incontrovertibly part of the 20th century avant-garde. He studied in Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, he went to Paris and worked in London before the outbreak of World War II, evading the gathering storm clouds which were hovering over European Jewry. Then he found refuge in South Africa, unaware that he had landed in a country which was unready to recognize the high calibre of his work, was itself culturally divided and well on its way to institutionalized racial segregation.
Herman Wald had much in common with Moses Kottler and Lippy Lipshitz, who both came from an Eastern European orthodox Jewish background. However, they had very little personal contact in South Africa. All three of them had even less contact with other sculptors such as the doyen of South African sculpture, Anton van Wouw (1862-1945), Coert Steynberg (1905-1982) the favourite of the Afrikaner Nationalist establishment, Ivan Mitford-Barberton (1896-1967), Fanie Eloff (1885-1947), and Elsa Dziomba (1906-1970). The sculptors of the Polley Street art centre, which was founded by Cecil Skotnes in 1958, Sydney Kumalo (1935-1988), Edouardo Villa (1915-2011) or Ezrom Legae seem to have been entirely outside his orbit. Artistic cross-fertilization was rare during the Apartheid era. Each sculptor worked in relative isolation. The Jewish artists appear to have been marginalised even more radically. Herman Wald found support within the Jewish community which, however, at the same time was wary of the biblical injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image”. He was not a member of the South African New Group which was established in 1938, was not invited to participate in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary exhibition in Cape Town in 1952. However, he was part of the Johannesburg Society of the Arts from its inception in 1961, where he spoke at the opening about what inspired his work.[i]
Moses Kottler too felt marginalised by the South African establishment and at the end of his life felt that he had not reached his artistic potential due to a dearth of public commissions. Lippy Lipchitz after initial hardships, managed to establish himself in Cape Town as a senior lecturer in sculpture at the Michaelis School of Art and associate Professor for Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.
Whilst Kottler and Lipshitz were eventually awarded a gold medal by the South African Academy for Arts and Sciences, Herman Wald was not. No monograph appeared on his work and he does not feature in any prominent compendium of South African artists. It is hard to understand how the prominent art historian Esmé Berman in her seminal reference work “Art and artist of South Africa” could so completely and deliberately ignore Herman Wald’s work, even if she disliked him as a person. It was her choice not to include him despite the extraordinary quality and originality of his work. The other renowned South African art historians, notably Joseph Sachs, Dora Sowden and the distinguished historian Edgar Bernstein wrote about the art of Herman Wald in scholarly articles. But they appeared in journals such as Jewish Affairs or the S.A. Jewish Times which were read almost exclusively by the Jewish community. This was a time and climate of separation and segregation in South Africa, which spilled over all walks of life. The present study of his life and work, his personality and artistic oeuvre may throw some light upon the reasons why oblivion engulfed a South African artist of his high calibre.
[i] S.A. Art News, 4. 5. 1961