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Concluding years, the passing of Herman Wald, aftermath

In 1967 Herman Wald was commissioned to embellish the Holy Ark of the Berea Synagogue in Johannesburg. He created a huge copper relief  depicting “The Wings of the Shekhinah”.  

D4A4863 Wings 2_RGB.jpg

The Wings of the Shechinah. 1967   

Bronze. 520x520x70cm

South African Jewish Museum. “Old Shul”

Exhibition of 2012.

Formerly:  the Berea Synagogue, Johannesburg

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 289]

(See Part II, fig. 38)

Floating above the wings, enhanced by   “chains of continuity” which symbolize the link between man and God were the Ten Commandments rendered in copper,

“ to give the impression that the message they carry is floating across the whole world.”[i]

After Herman Wald’s untimely death his youngest son Louis celebrated his Bar Mitzvah under these wings encompassing  the  Holy Ark   in the Berea Synagogue.

In his last period Herman Wald began to  created images which transcended his personal existence.

Birth of an Idea.jpg

Birth of an Idea or  Inception of Thought. 1968

Clay. 29 x 48 x 27 cm

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 7]

(See Part II, fig. 43)

According to the Zohar ,  the principal book of Jewish mysticism, known as the Kabbalah[ii] the love between man and woman brings energy and harmony to the universe and  is the secret of the transformation that  overcomes earthly  suffering and brings forth spiritual survival.

Lovers 3.jpg

The Lovers  3. 1968

Clay. 57 x 20 x 5 cm

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 209]

(See Part II, fig. 44)

He showed the works of this period, conceived when he was at the height of his creative powers in  what was to become his  last  retrospective  exhibition held in the Platinum room of the President Hotel in Johannesburg. It was opened by his friend,  Adv.  Philip Wulfsohn.  

In 1970  Wald had received a commission to erect a bird fountain in Salisbury, presently Harare, Zimbabwe, where he went to work on the structure. On the 4th of July, whilst  working on the fountain,  Herman Wald suffered a heart attack. He  tragically succumbed to it  four days later in the presence of his wife and sons. In fulfilment of his wish, he was laid to rest in the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg at the foot of the monument which he had created in memory of  the six million martyred European Jews.

Obituaries appeared in the local press, his  works were  reviewed and his untimely death lamented by art critics.[iii] They chiefly mentioned his public sculptures. In the Jewish press Edgar Bernstein mourned his passing  in a passionate lament, describing him as  one who had done  so much for South African Jewry and “got so little in return”. [iv]   Bernstein remarked: “They all came to his funeral, the friends, old and new…”[v] but by saying this he withheld subtle  reproach about the neglect of this  artist. He  ended his obituary with these words:

 “The Jewish community owes a great deal to the memory of Herman Wald. It would be a fitting gesture if they were to sponsor a commemorative exhibition”.[vi]

The Jewish Board of Deputies responded positively.  Their  Cultural Director,  Chaim Lewis,  approached the Joubert Park Art Gallery with the request to hold a retrospective exhibition of the works of  Herman Wald in this venue, which in his view was  worthy of the sculptor.[vii] It is baffling how he was treated. First he received an instruction to submit his  request on paper, with which he complied. This was followed by a polite, non-committal acknowledgement of the request, whereupon  the matter faded away and came to nothing. But the Jewish Board of Deputies pursued the matter an  selected the Cranbrooke Hotel in Johannesburg  as a venue   for  a Herman Wald Memorial exhibition. It was  opened in on the 17th October 1971. Cultural functions were presented parallel to the exhibition. On the first evening a number of films on modern sculpture, culminating in the art of Herman Wald, were shown. On the second evening Rabbi  Glasser spoke on contemporary Jewish art and artists, and on the third evening Professor S Rappaport presented a lecture entitled “The Jewish Theme in Art”. A catalogue which was presented as a memento for Herman Wald, was printed for the exhibition.[viii] This was a public tribute by the Jewish community to their distinguished member.  

Six years later, in 1976, due to  Vera’s efforts, a further  retrospective exhibition of the works of Herman Wald  was held at the Sladmore Gallery in Parktown where thirty sculptures  in ceramic, wood and bronze were shown. They received some scant attention in the press.

His eldest son, Michael, an artist in his own right, presented an erudite  lecture on Herman Wald’s art. However, it was   addressed exclusively  to a Jewish audience.[ix].

For a number of years after Wald’s death Vera maintained his studio in which his works were housed , showing them by appointment.[x]  From 1987 she and their youngest son, Louis, began gathering information for a catalogue raisonnée. Aided by Wald’s former assistant,  Nimrod Goge, they collated information from owners of Herman Wald’s sculptures all over the world, which was gleaned from exhibition lists.

After  Vera passed away in 2007, this task was left  to Louis  who had to  place his father’s sculptures into storage.  The renewed encounter with his work moved him deeply and  he subsequently dedicated himself with passionate  commitment towards the  revival his father’s artistic standing in the South African history of art.   Due to his  efforts, a  retrospective exhibition  was held at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town in February 2012. At last  Herman Wald  received his deserved recognition. Whilst the exhibition lasted, it received great interest, but again mainly by the Jewish community. However, no catalogue was compiled to cover the exhibition and as yet not a single  monograph has been devoted to the life and work of this exceptional sculptor of the 20th century avant-garde.

Herman Wald: the  Artist and the Man

“My best work is the one I will make tomorrow”[xi].

 Apart from his fountains and two public sculptures erected posthumously, more than four hundred  works  by Herman Wald are known.  Many were created to be cast in bronze. However, due to his untimely death they were never executed in this medium.   

The art of Herman Wald developed in perpetual state of migration and  deracination which compelled him to adjust repeatedly to new surroundings.   He was endowed with a formidable  technical virtuosity,  both in modelling and in carving.  He would work on several sculptures simultaneously in different styles. Even in his final years he  returned to the theme of the little genre sculptures,  a reminiscence of his childhood.

Argument, The.jpg


Clay. 38  x 42 x 13 cm

“The Argument” is an example, depicting two figures engaged in heated debate with explosively  whirling  gesticulation,  reflecting the  circular movement from an inner core of his late style.   

Herman Wald’s  first love  was direct carving. Here  he could conceive the form from the depth of the block of wood or marble and bring out  its  tactile  essence.  There is a stylistic restlessness in  his art which he himself recognized and correctly ascribed to his fate, as he expressed in one of his lectures on  Marc Chagall:

“… Lasting art can only be created in a place where one’s family has lived for centuries and the seeds of a particular culture have taken root[xii] (…) Now look at the centuries of persecution the Jews have been through. By the time he  (sic) had to pick up a brush and dry his canvas he had to leave the country and put his tent up somewhere else…” [xiii]

In South Africa Wald felt able to put down roots and to find a more or less supportive and  appreciative audience.  He obtained commissions for public fountains and sold his sculptures to a group of supporters. Yet he was also aware that orthodox Jews would be reluctant to purchase his work because of the ban of the graven image in the Ten Commandments, even more so  after the Holocaust because of a  fear of God’s anger.  So Herman Wald was marginalized from within as well as from without.  He wrote about this with passionate regret:

“….we can see what a great tragedy it was that the Jewish law forbade sculpture as one of the most important tools to express a nation’s urge for the arts…”[xiv]

He observed  that even Moses had “ … felt this urge,  by carving the Ten Commandments out of stone. Should he have written the Ten Commandments instead of carving them, they would have remained only a document instead of a monument….” [xv]

Thus to be  a sculptor for Herman Wald meant being a rebel.

Besides his artistic creativity Herman Wald was devoted to music.  He  had a rich baritone voice.  He was incisively witty and humorous, which is revealed in his writings, autobiographical sketches and aphorisms. He was open, gregarious, modest, good-natured[xvi] and very attentive towards his friends.   He exuded refinement and sophistication.  Whenever  a commission came his way he held a studio party, sharing his  joy with  friends. Like many artists, he was “not a businessman”, as was emphasized by those who knew him. Herman Wald also  had a dark side and   at times succumbed  states of deep  melancholy.

It was his material misfortune that he could not to promote himself. But throughout his life he was fortunate to have the tireless support of his wife, Vera.

Herman Wald drew his inspiration from his  Jewish essence.   His  creativity is inextricably linked with  his understanding of the ancient  Hebrew God. He could not create outside this sphere. Each of his sculptures is a tangible intermediary between the artist and  God’s numinous power. This is what set him apart  and this is what made of him an exceptional sculptor within the stream  20th century art.  



[i] Ibid.

[ii] The  Zohar, also known as “the Book of Splendour is a commentary on the mystical aspects of the five books of Moses (the Torah). It also encompasses mythical cosmogony, discourses on the nature of God,  of light versus darkness,  and of redemption.

[iii] The Star, 6. 7. 1970; Rand Daily Mail, 6. 7. 1970; Die Transvaler, 6. 7. 1970.

[iv] Edgar Bernstein. Herman Wald. Obituary. S.A. Jewish Times Friday 17 July, 1970.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Letter to the Secretary Mr Cerqueiro 2. 12. 1970.

[viii] Minutes of the Herman Wald sub-committee of the S.A. Jewish Board of Deputies held on 21 July 1971.

[ix] On the 16th April 1978.

[x] S.A. Jewish Times, Friday 14/3/1975.

[xi] Herman Wald.  Undated fragment.

[xii] He emphasized, however, that this cultural rootedness is not to be confused with nationalism  but  rather to be seen within the perspective of tribal identity.

[xiii] Herman Wald. Lecture on Marc Chagall. (Unpublished), op.cit. See under Resources. Also: This view has been dealt with in detail by Martin Buber in his lecture “Von jüdischer  Kunst”, 27 December 1901 delivered  at the 5th Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. See also: Heinrich Strauss. Die Kunst der Juden im Wandel der Zeit und Umwelt: Das Judenproblem im Spiegel der Kunst. Tübingen, Ernst Wasmuth, 1972. About Herman Wald and this subject see: Natalie Knight.  Jewish Affairs,    2012.


[xiv] Op cit, See under:  Writings.

[xv] Herman Wald. Lecture on Chagall, 0p cit..

[xvi] Michael Wald during a Television interview with his mother  Vera in 1990

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