Sali Herman

1898 - 1993 Balmain 1975
  • oil on canvas
136.9 cm x 83.7 cm

Sali Herman was in his late thirties by the time he arrived in Australia, having spent some teenage years absorbing the artistic life of Paris before studying art in his native Zurich, working as a painter and running an art dealing business. Herman was among the Jewish émigrés who enriched the realms of Australian art and culture, in which he engaged with energetic enthusiasm during his long life.

Herman arrived in Melbourne in 1937 and briefly studied at the centre of modernism in that city, the George Bell school, before visiting Sydney and deciding to stay.

I fell in love with Sydney. Because of these little roads going up and down, at the houses I saw here. They had character here. […] Much more cosmopolitan. I felt more at home.[1]

While the artist travelled extensively around Australia, he is best known for depicting the inner-city streets of working-class Sydney. In 1944, his painting of the McElhone Stairs in Woolloomooloo won the Wynne Prize – a controversial choice for The Bulletin’s art critic, who lamented the depiction of one of Sydney’s ‘slummiest aspects’.[2]

This image of the narrow terrace houses of Balmain is a late iteration of that enduring theme. The painting was made when the artist was in his late 70s and Sydney’s working-class neighbourhoods were on the cusp of transformation. Ideas of urban heritage and ways of seeing the city’s built landscapes were evolving.  Sali Herman’s decision to place those gritty streets on canvas and on gallery walls had played its own part in that shift.

For many of my street scenes in the beginning Iʼve been insulted. Why paint the bloody slums and why paint all this and that when you have the harbour and beautiful gum trees? But, to me, a painting is a subject, a means to create. Painting, again, is only another medium to writing or music. In writing, we do not only write pretty stories. If you donʼt like the book you get in front of you, then just forget about the book. Read another one.[3]

Text  by Robyn Johnston

[1] From transcript of Sali Herman interview with James Gleeson, 23 November 1978

[2] The Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 19 2021

[3] Gleeson interview

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The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country and recognises their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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