What People Do and Why They Do It by Josef Herman and John Abell


Ceri Richards Gallery, Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea


At first, you might not think that there is much in common between Josef Herman (or Joe Bach, as he was endearingly known) and John Abell (“Artist, Vagabond, Part-Time Dandy” – according to his twitter profile), as each artist’s distinctive style is so dissimilar from that of the other. Herman’s clear, colourful and spirited painterly prints capture Ystradgynlais in a time and place which doesn’t exist any more, when the Ynysycedwen colliery was at full production and the vast majority of the town’s men worked at the coal face. In stark contrast, Abell’s detailed, expressive lithographs and woodcut prints capture whole stories on a single piece of paper, using metaphorical figures and personal, recurring motifs to their fullest extent.

Though their styles differ, the one thing that holds each artist together is the art of observation. The show is entitled What People Do And Why They Do It for a reason, as each artist can only have come to their work after deep thought on the human condition with an objective eye on what they see around them.

It was the miners in Ystradynglais that did it for Herman. On first arriving in the town (a fortnight turned into eleven years, says the folklore) in 1944, Herman observed a group of miners entering the town at the end of their shift:

‘This image of the miners on the bridge against the glowing sky mystified me for years with its mixture of sadness and grandeur, and it became the source of my work for years to come.’

Indeed, even after he left Ystradgynlais in 1955, Herman still found inspiration to make pictures such as ‘Two Miners’ (1962), which shows two hunched-over figures, in a bold matted black, staring at the floor, neither together nor apart, in each other’s company yet distant from anyone or anything outside their own thoughts.

In a similar vein sits John Abell’s disturbed figures. Along the far wall of the gallery are his lithographic prints made during a residency at the prestigious Curwen studio (from a grant awarded by the Josef Herman Foundation). ‘The Kindness of Dogs and Rats’ is one of the most striking. In the centre of the picture stands a many-headed man; most of his faces appear either weeping or utterly bewildered. Depicting ‘The rat race and the pressures of modern life and [The] desire to get back to the primal,’ it is not hard to see where Abell gets his inspiration from: ‘Walking is my transport of choice; a time to think and connect with the environment in which I live. I suppose I have my best ideas in the shower or whilst strolling,’ he has been known to say.

Many such figures, juxtaposed between what Desmond Morris called the biological ‘fight between conformity and innovation‘ are a common sight, though perhaps without so many heads and without verminous rats and dogs gnawing at their legs. But sometimes, it is in the imagination that we see things in a clearer light. And Herman and Abell clearly have imagination in abundance.

Banner Illustration: detail from ‘Psychogeographic Romanticism’ by John Abell