The Curtis Collection of Artworks by Sali Herman

Shapiro Auctioneers is happy to announce the sale of The Curtis Collection of Artworks by Sali Herman in the forthcoming Australian and International Art Auction

Thursday 15 September 7pm Sydney

Viewing of the Curtis Collection Saturday 27 August through Monday 12 September 11am – 5pm

Enquiries 02 9326 1588 Catalogue online August 27

Sali Herman (1898–1993) is best known for his inner-city street scenes, but he also produced a great many Australian outback, rural and garden landscapes. A Swiss/Polish Jewish refugee in 1937 from Hitler’s Europe, he settled in Sydney the following year. Aged forty, life began again. His art-making became his way of knowing Australia and being Australian.

When the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s 1944 Wynne Prize for an Australian landscape went to his McElhone stairs (now collection National Gallery of Australia) it was controversial. No urban or suburban scenes had won before, and this picturesque bit of old Woolloomooloo was called a clumsy, un-Australian ‘slumscape’.

Informed observers, however, recognised French modernism, similar to Maurice Utrillo’s Paris street scenes, and knew that the uniquely expressive textured surfaces descended from Courbet and Van Gogh. The scraped and gouged palette-knife technique suited the frontal-slab subjects found down below the artist’s home which was in Wylde Street, Potts Point. For his not-yet-gentrified terrace houses and back lanes, Herman developed masterful skills at depicting plaster, brickwork, rusting iron, curling timber palings, and peeling paintwork of wonderfully unconventional hues revealed by demolition or created by improvised renovation.

Shapiro’s 17 paintings and 3 drawings by Herman come from the estate of Andrew Curtis, a Holocaust survivor who did well in Australia, and befriended the fellow immigrant. A rare interior composition stands out: an artist with his model is a conventional subject in art history, but this is unusually personal. A reticent but recognisable self-image figure, withdrawn to the edge of the canvas, is at work in his studio at 34 Victoria Street, Potts Point, and concentrates not on a nude figure but on a beautifully self-possessed animal model, Sandy his cat; the cello case is a reminder that he painted to classical music. In the Curtiscollection the 1954 artist worker kept company with a 1982 Australian blacksmith titled Man at work, a 1972 Drover with sheep and a 1981 rider mustering cattle.

Herman never painted outdoors. He always worked in the studio from annotated drawings like the three in the Curtis collection, ofWoolloomooloo (probably 1940s), Paris (1953) and Mykonos (1976). He needed time, to solidify and simplify the image. Bridge 1980 revisits a 1949 sketch made at Richmond in Tasmania. Untitled (Country road) 1978 is probably a New South Wales subject found at Bathurst in 1948, and the scrubby Untitled (Bush landscape) 1982 is perhaps a memory of Wagga Wagga where he was in army camp in 1943. The outback subjects could be anywhere between Cobar, Broken Hill and the Northern Territory at Tennant Creek, sketched during his first great penetration of the Australian continent in 1946.

In 1960, after twenty years at inner-city Potts Point — where art historian Bernard Smith had been an early friend and neighbour in the same block of flats — Herman moved to the distant seaside suburb of Avalon There he developed a fresher repertory of sub-tropical garden scenes, sandstone bushland (Forest and rocks 1980 and Forest 1986) and estuary waterways (Moored boats in a bay 1971). After his wife Paulette died in 1972, he began making annual visits to Europe: Courtyard serenade 1979 is evidently a Mediterranean subject; the Untitled (Roof in a landscape) 1980 is probably Danish. In 1979 in Copenhagen he had remarried an old flame from past time in London, and the black roofs in Boats on a beach 1976 again suggest Denmark. He was good at treating black as an active colour.

I have fond memories of visiting Avalon while I was in charge of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and, at Bernard Smith’s instigation, preparing monographs on Sali Herman’s art published in 1962 and 1971. I also acknowledge insights in the 1981 exhibition catalogue by Barry Pearce, my successor at the Art Gallery. It has been a pleasure to revisit Sali Herman’s art so long after my first encounter over fifty years ago.

Daniel Thomas, Tasmania, July 2011