The South African years
Herman Wald made the major move to South Africa in 1937. His brother managed to bring him out just before the Aliens Act (1) (1937) slammed the door on Jewish immigration to this country. Soon after his arrival in Cape Town’s Table Bay harbour he left for Johannesburg to yet again build a new life.
First he found himself a studio in Smith Street, Joubert Park, and then travelled to his brother in East London over the vast expanses of the South African land. With his inborn optimism he expressed his fascination with “God’s virgin country and unspoiled civilization “ which, after experiencing the east coast city of East London, seemed to have a “a very talented urge for culture”. And he assumed hopefully: “the culture that was the twilight of European decay, is now becoming the daylight of South African awakening.”[i] He was fascinated by the African people, especially their musicality. Picking up African sounds with his musical ear he marvelled at the drum-beat that communicates messages and at the rhythmical song which accompanied their work. Once he watched a group of road builders and noted:
“Several hundred spades of the gang following a natural tune and the cue of the foreman that hit the ground is timed with such precision as if Toscanini were conducting a huge orchestra demanding absolute perfection.” [ii]
He was also fascinated by the proud bearing of African women. He moulded and carved figures of mothers carrying their infants on their backs, majestically erect, their imposing head gear and neck rings emphasising their hieratic presence.
Also entitled ZULU MOTHER AND CHILD. 1960
Zimbabwean teakwood. 73 x 29 x 17 cm.
Photo: cat. [Cat ID: 155]
(See Part II, fig. 27)
After his initial enchantment with the country he discovered that this “daylight of awakening” proved to be a stifling backwater for artists, a nightmare of institutionalised racial segregation and opposition to mingling with African people. Due to the South African political fabric, he never came close to African people on an intellectual level, except for the deep mutual trust built up with his studio assistants Francis Mologo and Nimrod Goge.
He had brought some of his carvings to South Africa and began work on new sculptures. He also opened up his studio to pupils. He participated in exhibitions in Johannesburg and East London, which brought him recognition.
Several of his pupils remembered his qualities. For Chana Jacobson he was an inspiring teacher with a warm sense of humour, sensitive towards his pupils, guiding them gently, sometimes using a simple aphorism. He did not impose his views on them but allowed their innate creativity to develop in its own way.[i] His ethical teaching standards were confirmed by another of his pupils, Helena Lückhoff née Jacobs who studied under him for a year. She recalled that the first assignment for the portrait sculpture classes was to copy his “Head of Moses”.
HEAD OF MOSES. 1936
Bronze. 79 x 35 x 6cm
Photo: cat. www.hermanwald.com [work ID 152]
(See Part II, fig.1)
She also recalled that Herman Wald maintained a distance from his students and, though courteous, did not allow them to get too close to him.[i] Bunny Stern, née Hatchuel, another of Wald’s pupils, also remembered him warmly. [ii] Herman Wald offered live model classes who formed part of the vibrant studio ambience. One of his more controversial pupils was Harold Rubin (b. 1932) who landed in hot water with the South African conservative church and was tried for blasphemy. He also carried out a series of drawings depicting the Sharpeville massacre of 21st March 1960, in which he criticised the brutality of the apartheid régime. Isaac Witkin (1936-2006) was one of Herman Wald’s youngest pupils who later went to London, where he studied under Anthony Caro and worked as an assistant to Henry Moore. [iii] He became part of the British abstract movement called “New Generation Sculpture”. Elizabeth Couzyn, wife of the famous opera singer, Dawie Couzyn, worked in the studio until they left for Vienna for her husband to pursue his singing career. There she became a pupil of Oskar Kokoschka. Herman Wald opened one of her exhibitions in Johannesburg with words of warm praise for her work.[iv]
The South African reception of the art of Herman Wald
Herman Wald’s work started to attract public interest and as early as 1939 he featured in the popular South African Theatre, Music and Dance Magazine.[v] His exhibitions received positive reviews in the press. The art critics of the newspapers ‘The Star’, the ‘Rand Daily Mail’ and the ‘Sunday Express’ were favourably disposed towards his work. But it also must be said that their comments were at times somewhat a bit insipid. Some of the reporters seemed not to quite grasp the depth of his work, nor could they contextualise its significance within the modernist movement, for example:
“Whether one is attracted or repelled by these works, one cannot but admit their challenge.”[vi]
“… a constant interest in the symbolism of the human form”.[vii]
“Herman Wald is by religion an artist”.[viii]
The reporters repeatedly mention his pacifist world view which he must have emphasised during the interviews, without, however, presenting an aesthetic analysis of how these convictions were realized in his work:
“He believes the most important thing an artist can do is to use his art in the cause of peace.”[ix]
A review which appeared in the East London Daily Dispatch about an exhibition of drawings by Herman Wald sums up the general lack of understanding of modern art and the artist’s place in it, although the critic tried hard:
“This exhibition is well worth seeing, and those who go should keep in mind the fact that this type of art is not decadence from the art of the old masters, nor just another passing fancy, but an art which has grown out of the old via the machine age…”[x]
But gradually the critics gained a deeper insight into the art of Herman Wald and the Johannesburg public began to purchase his work. Edgar Bernstein, a distinguished Jewish scholar, expressed admiration for his work in several articles which appeared, however, not in the local press but in the South African Jewish Times.
Also in the Jewish press the art historian Dora Sowden summed it up with her evaluations “At its best, Herman Wald lets his work speak for itself in a very individual style, and it is a matter of choice whether his intellectual assertion or the sheer mobility of his skill is more immediately effective.[xi]
Joseph Sachs, with a wider historical perspective, recognized that Wald had inherited the neo-baroque spirit of his Viennese mentor, Anton Hanak and that “He loves to show the human form in violent tension, revealing the inner conflict and frustration of our generation. He uses the human figure to express an idea.”[xii] Sachs also recognised in Wald’s work the fine line between his strength and his weakness, namely his “preoccupation to express thought and emotion rather than the relation of masses and planes.” He saw that this characteristic “often forces his hand, producing works which are more remarkable on the surface than in the mass”, and concludes that : “He has, too, plenty of enthusiasm and spirit and a lyrical feeling which is often poetic rather than plastic in character”[xiii] These Jewish art critics and art historians wrote about Herman Wald in the Jewish Guild’s New Year Annual, the Jewish Affairs and Jewish Times. These magazines and periodicals were generally read by members of the Jewish community and not by the wider public.
Despite these very encouraging receptions of his art in South Africa, Herman Wald’s thoughts were elsewhere. He was preoccupied with his forebodings of war and the fear for the lives of his mother and his family in Hungary. The first work which he completed in South Africa was entitled “Gassed”. It alluded to the trenches in the First World War, but it eerily foreshadowed what was to come.
Clay. 77 x 36 x 28 cm
Photo: cat. www.hermanwald.com [Work ID 101]
(See Part II, fig. 2)
[i] “Carved thoughts”, op.cit.
[ii] Herman Wald. Undated fragment among his personal documents in the collection of Louis Wald, op.citSee: Resources.
[iii] Conversation on Skype between Louis Wald (London), Shea Albert, George Reeves and Ute Ben Yosef (Cape Town) 24.7.2011.
[iv] Conversation with the author during the Herman Wald exhibition at the SAJM 24 May 2012, during which she produced a photo showing her next to the head of “Moses”.
[v] Interview of Bunny Stern, then aged 94, by her daughter on behalf of Louis Wald in Toronto, August/September 2011.
[vi] Grania Ogilvie. The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors, 1988 p 757.
[vii] Undated fragment in the Herman Wald Files. Op.cit. See Resources; General Documents.
[viii] The S.A. Theatre Music and Dance. October, 1939.
[ix] The Star 14.9.1944
[x] Referring to the sculptures: De Profundis, Self-Love, Homeless, Beggar Woman.
[xi] The S.A. Theatre, Music and Dance, 1939.
[xii] Artist and his Art. Sunday Express. Undated newspaper fragment.
[xiii] Anonymous. East London Daily Dispatch, 26. 1. 1940.