A Brief Appraisal
“Is not happiness itself a philosophy?”
The artist Sali Herman was born in Switzerland in 1898 and studied at the Zurich Technical School. His first exhibition (of watercolours) was in 1918. In 1920 he won a Carnegie Fund grant for a portrait of his sister. After travelling in West Africa, South America and Europe, and having been twice married – he separated from his first wife in 1926 – he emigrated to Australia in 1937 to escape what was becoming a Nazi-dominated Europe. After further studies at the George Bell Studio in Melbourne he rapidly became established as one of Australia’s most well-known and admired artists.
Sali Herman’s originality lies more in his choice of subject matter than in his style which was usually representational and owed much to the Fauvist movement in European art of the early 20th century. The swing towards abstraction from c1920 seems to have had little attraction for him. Although he joined the Australian army in 1940 and was soon appointed an official war-artist, Sali Herman is now best known for his pictures of the back streets and slums of Sydney. Maybe he was amazed to see how such a new city (founded in 1788) had become so old-looking so soon. What is not generally known (and certainly hardly known at all outside of Australia) is that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries Sydney had become a large city teeming with immigrants, mostly from Great Britain and Ireland but also from other European countries and the Middle East. Its slums were extensive and much of the housing, dating back to the early and mid 19th century had been jerry-built and not always in suitable locations. Herman chose some of the poorer areas like Paddington and Woolloomooloo as subjects for paintings that prove the point that there can be beauty in the most unfavourable surroundings for one with an eye open to it:
‘An old man or an old woman may not be attractive but may have beauty in their characters. So it is with houses. When I paint them I look for the character, regardless of prettiness or dirty walls.’1
‘I had no “philosophy of slums”. I painted houses, because houses are parts of people and people parts of houses.’2
One of Sali Herman’s best known paintings is “The McElhone Stairs” (in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) for which he was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1945, the first of numerous prizes and awards. The stairs (which still exist and are a minor tourist attraction in Sydney) were built about 1870 to connect slummy Woolloomooloo with more affluent Potts Point about 100 feet above. The picture is dominated by three flights of ochre-coloured steps forming a rough triangle and taking up nearly half of the canvas. To the left of these are shrubs in green and blue tints and to the right a rusty iron fence leads up to an old house also in ochre. The vertical wall of this is nicely balanced on the top left by a single large pole, possibly a flag-pole- we cannot see the top of it. The upper third of the picture is divided almost in two by the house and a patch of clear blue sky. Human figures both solitary and in small groups are making their way up the stairs. We feel that none of them are hurrying, but taking their time- suggesting that this could be a Sunday afternoon and that these people are out for enjoyment rather than for business. Their style of dress suggests Spring or Summer and seems also to be earlier than the actual date of the painting (1944).
Some of Sali Herman’s street scenes are reminiscent of those by Utrillo, but the life and human activity he puts into them allies him more with an artist such as Lowry – although he did not share the latter’s pessimistic and detached view of humanity. And of course Lowry specialised in scenes of the industrial north of England with its gloomy and gritty atmosphere, far removed from the brilliant light of Australia.
However, comparing Herman’s street scenes with old photographs of similar streets we notice that in the photographs the buildings do look nothing so much as the kind of elderly and often decrepit type well known from European towns and cities of the same era; but in the pictures colours are heightened to the degree of suggesting almost Mediterranean locations and indeed those more attractive to live in than was probably so in reality.
Regardless of how much or little Sali Herman elaborated verbally on his “philosophy of happiness”, his art with its serene optimism and vibrant colours is a perfect expression of it. Note how the simple, but so often unattainable joys of homecoming, welcoming and human love are depicted in Back Home of 1946 (Australian War Memorial, Canberra) in which soldiers returning from the recently ended war are seen disembarking at a dockside. Of this picture Sali Herman said:
“This was the moment most men were dreaming of and looking forward to. Even the docks and their background were a sweet sight when coming home. Although civilians could not come on the boat I saw one young woman running up to her soldier husband. Sitting on the side was an infirm soldier, while the other men were walking through a passage to go on buses.”
It is as if all the tensions of those years of combat, deprivation and fear are released in this so eagerly – and long – awaited embrace.
Sali Herman’s second wife died in 1972. He married his third wife in 1979 and, after over half a century of living and working in Australia, died in 1993.
The value of Sali Herman’s work as a whole lies in its celebration of the positive aspects of human life. When so much of 20th century art reflects the pains and anxieties of the times, his serene art gives permanence to the fleeting moments of beauty that we can find in ordinary, usually un-regarded objects, surroundings and people.
1 Sali Herman, quoted in the Bulletin, 20 December 1948
2 Sali Herman, quoted in ‘New Art and Old Sydney’, Nation, 8 November 1958