Coal Society

1 December 2016 to 13 April 2017

This exhibition examines, celebrates and commemorates aspects of the south Wales coalfield.

It includes the work of incoming artists and those born in the area, ranging from painters Jack Crabtree and Josef Herman, Ken Elias and Ernest Zobole to photographers Levi Ladd, I C Rapoport, Ray Klimek and Anthony Stokes.

It is part of a collaboration with Wolfson College Cambridge and its complementary exhibition ‘Valley of Vision’.

Featured artists (by Dr Ceri Thomas)

Ernest Zobole (1927-1999)

Ernest Zobole (1927-1999) was born in Ystrad Rhondda in the heart of the south Wales coalfield to Italian immigrant shopkeepers and is a major figure within the Welsh art scene since 1945.

In 1948, he won a scholarship to study at Cardiff Art School. That year saw the beginnings of what became known as the Rhondda Group which was cemented by the hour-long train journey to and from Cardiff during which Zobole and his art student friends commandeered a compartment to create their own café culture on wheels and develop their “make it true, make it new” philosophy. It manifested itself as a love of place and an honest originality of vision.

In the early Fifties, Zobole met the German-Jewish refugee painter Heinz Koppel. It was a seminal encounter which contributed towards him progressively dismantling the conventions of linear perspective which were already strained by the physical experience of his mountainous Rhondda Valley, crammed to the brim with coal tips, strewn with terraced housing and tilting roads, and punctuated by riverside railway lines and yet more buildings competing for space along the length and up the sides of the valley floor.

By the 1960s he was exhibiting at the Piccadilly Gallery in London and from 1963 to 1984 he was a lecturer at Newport College of Art where he befriended the painter John Selway from Abertillery and was reunited with his Rhondda Group contemporary Tom Hughes from Ynyshir.

Apart from a brief period living at Llangefni, Zobole spent all his life in the “warm bed” of Rhondda and it was that place which informed his vision throughout his fifty-year career.

He painted obsessively at all ages and has been exhibited continuously since 1950. ‘Ernest Zobole: a retrospective’ toured Wales in 2004-05, a monograph was published in 2007 and some key examples of his work can be found in the University of South Wales Art Collection Museum. His final fifteen years were particularly productive, his later, almost kinetic, map-like, nocturne paintings completing as it were a highly distinctive and increasingly imaginative set of imagings which, based on his industrial and post-industrial south Wales environment, ultimately are comments upon the human condition.

Josef Herman (1911-2000)

Josef Herman (1911-2000) was born and raised in Warsaw, the son of a Polish-Jewish shoe-maker, and became a significant figure within the British art scene since 1945.

In the early 1930s, he studied at Warsaw School of Art and, having left the city in 1938, at Brussels Academy of Fine Arts. In Belgium he met and was influenced by the painter Constant Permeke. With the Nazi invasion of mainland Europe, he became a refugee artist and fled to Britain in 1940, settling first in wartime Glasgow and London and then in the mining village of Ystradgynlais in south Wales thanks to a chance meeting with local writer Dai Alexander.

Two weeks there became eleven years (from 1944 to 1955) following a near-visionary sighting of miners silhouetted against the setting sun as they crossed a bridge on their way home from work. He had found his subject and he developed his mature style in Wales: “The miner is the man of Ystradgynlais” he wrote, adding that “It would be true to say that the miner is the walking monument to labour”.

His rapidly executed sketches and increasingly expressionist paintings of them seated, standing or working became a template for his subsequent depictions of other workers and the dignity of manual labour. They were the living and (for him) archetypal subjects of his mural for the Minerals of the Island pavilion at the Festival of Britain.

Following the images of his subterranean workers the Welsh miners and their busy wives came those of workers on the land and the edge of the land in other countries – farmers, peasants and fisher folk. But all of these owed a debt to his Welsh period.

A prodigiously hard worker, Herman exhibited from 1932 right up until his death. He was awarded the gold medal for fine art at the 1962 National Eisteddfod of Wales in Llanelli and elected to the Royal Academy in 1990. His work is to be found in the Tate who in 2013-15 initiated Mining Josef Herman, a partnership with the Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru which, created posthumously with the assistance of the artist’s widow Nini Herman, is based in Ystradgynlais.

Denys Short (b 1927)

Denys Short (b 1927) was born in Bideford and is a senior figure on the Welsh art scene.

From 1948 to 1953, he studied at Goldsmiths College London where he met his future wife Eirian Short (b 1924) who hails from Fishguard.

In his early career, he was a regular visitor to south Wales and produced paintings of the Valleys. In 1958 he won the gold medal for fine art at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Ebbw Vale, with a painting titled ‘Terrace in Maesteg’.

Following early retirement from teaching at Hornsey College of Art in 1985, he settled in Pembrokeshire. He is better known now as a sculptor, having begun to produce three-dimensional works in the 1970s such as ‘Hafan’ which is based on the front door of a typical terraced house in the Valleys. It is in the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales and was included in the museum’s 2013 exhibition ‘Pop and Abstract’.