Exploring the work of Bert Isaac – A first glimpse

On 23 October 2017, the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University received a substantial gift of some 174 artworks by the Welsh painter-printmaker Bert Isaac, who died in 2006. As Professor Robert Meyrick discovered on visiting his home in Abergavenny, his studio was a veritable treasure trove of prints, drawings and paintings, as well as sketchbooks and beautifully designed, hand-bound books that Isaac had produced in the course of a long artistic career dating back to the early 1940s.

What a delight it must have been to be offered this collection by Isaac’s widow Joan and his daughter Susan Pochron! His work fits particularly well with the Museum’s already substantial and nationally important collections, not only because of Isaac’s Welsh origins and the predominance of Welsh landscape themes in his work, but also because of his strong affinities with the Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s to 1960s, such as Ceri Richards, David Jones, John Elwyn and Graham Sutherland, whose works already feature prominently in the Collection.

Moreover, Isaac was a dedicated teacher of art, and trainer of future art teachers in Cardiff, Swansea and London, where he continued to work in the Art and Design Department of the Institute of Education until the 1980s. In 1999, he was awarded the MBE for services to art education. In his final years, he was especially content in the knowledge that so much of his life’s work would find its ultimate destination in the School of Art Museum and Galleries, whose explicit mission is to make fine works of art readily available for study by future generations of artists and art historians enrolled at Aberystwyth.

I first become aware of Bert Isaac’s work only recently, in two exhibitions in 2016 at MOMA Machynlleth (Romancing Wales: Romanticism in the Welsh landscape since 1770, and Ffiniau: Four Painters in Raymond Wlliams’ Border Country, both curated by Dr Peter Wakelin). Three of his striking semi-abstract landscapes were highlights for me in the School of Art Gallery’s recent exhibition Outside In: Abstracting the Landscape. So I jumped at the opportunity Robert offered me to start work on the cataloguing of these new acquisitions from Isaac’s own studio. Each week, I am spending a few hours happily installed in Robert’s office, examining, measuring and describing the newly-acquired works.

I thought I should share a few favourites with readers of the blog as I proceed, and here is my first instalment of firm favourites: three multi-media drawings in ink, watercolour, gouache, pastel and pencil, all done in 1979 probably within a very short time of each other. They bear striking similarities, not only in their theme of rugged mountainous landscape including decaying quarry workings – one of Isaac’s favourite themes – but in their brilliant, vibrant colour. What might to some seem a rather grim subject – the relics of a vanished industry over-run by the scrubby vegetation of blasted upland heath – is here transformed. And as he grew older, Isaac’s colours were to become ever bolder, fresher and more striking, as I hope to show in a later post.

Judy Batt

(MA Fine Art student)

Bert Isaac Blue ridge 1979
Bert Isaac, Blue ridge, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 215 x 315 mm)
Bert Isaac Old Fence 1979
Bert Isaac, Old Fence, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 235 x 215 mm)
Bert Isaac Estuary View 1979
Bert Isaac, Estuary View, 1979 (mixed media on paper, 212 x 317 mm)









Free ‘Mighty Joe Young’ Workshops

Mighty Joe Young poster


“Re-animating ‘Mighty Joe Young’”: Free stop-motion animation workshops by Holden Holcombe, School of Art

Workshop 1: 28th and 29th November

Workshop 2: 12th and 13th December

For bookings, please contact Holden Holcombe: hoh10@aber.ac.uk

“Imaginary Worlds”: Free illustration workshops by Chris Iliff, School of Art

Workshop 1: Creating believable characters – 30th November
Workshop 2: Designing worlds to be lived in – 7th December

Time: 10:30 – 12:30

Location: To be decided

For bookings, please contact Chris Iliff: chi@aber.ac.uk

Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities September 2017

Mask VCuriosity: Noh mask

Country of origin: Japan

Created: 19th century or early 20th century (?)

Measurements: 405mm x 382mm

Material: Wood, gesso, horsehair, glass, paint, papier mâché




Noh is the name of the classical Japanese form of theatre. It developed from the earlier performance styles Dengaku no Noh (field music performance) and Sarugaku (“monkey music”) during the 14th century. During Dengaku, there would be acrobatics and juggling; Sarugaku had comical components and had developed from Shinto rituals. Whereas Dengaku performers would alternate the singing and the more physical parts of their show, Sarugaku actors sung and danced/mimed simultaneously; after 1420, they would also be supported by a choir. Sarugaku also became more serious over the decades and began to supplant Dengaku in the second half of the 14th century. Father and son Kan’ami Kiyosugu (1333-84) and Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) were famous actors of their time and are chiefly responsible for outlining the rules and conventions of the austere, dramatic art of Noh, which are still being adhered to today. Zeami explains, for example, that “the writing of No consists of three stages: choice of “seed” (subject), construction and composition. The “seed” is the story on which the play is based. This story must be well considered and divided into Introduction, Development and Climax. …Then the words must be put together and the music joined to them.” (The No Plays of Japan, Arthur Waley)

Uki-e no kyogen no zu 浮絵能狂言之図 (Perspective Picture of a No Performance) ©Trustees of the British Museum
Uki-e no kyogen no zu 浮絵能狂言之図 (Perspective Picture of a No Performance), woodblock print, Japan, 1780s ©Trustees of the British Museum

A Noh play has strictly defined roles; the lead is the shite, the subaltern who explains the story is the waki. Both have adjuncts, tsure. A shite’s companion is called tomo and everyday characters such as boatmen or sword-bearers are kyogen. Sometimes boy actors are used for characters such as emperors; those are called kokata. In addition, there are a choir that sings, or rather chants, in support of the lead and musicians, usually including a flute, two hand-drums and a stick-drum. The plays can broadly be divided into five categories: Kami No deal with deities; Shura No are battle plays, Kazura No, ‘wig’ plays, stories about beautiful women, Zatsu, which includes a variety of topics and Kiri or Kichiku No, stories concerning supernatural beings. John Mack and Arthur Waley have written about the history and development of Noh in much more detail, especially Waley’s book quotes extensively from Zeami’s treatises. You can find information regarding their books below in the ‘Sources’.

Masks were already used in Dengaku and Sarugaku and previous performance styles such as Bugaku (ca. 794-1185) and the even earlier Gigaku. Noh masks are carved out of a single piece of Japanese cypress wood. After having carved the masks to the desired thickness, holes for the mouth, eyes and nose are inserted. Then they are covered with a mixture of gesso and glue and sanded down to their final shape. Lastly, they are painted in the colours of the characters they represent and features such as the hairline and eyebrows and the area around the eyes are indicated with black ink. Hair or inlaid metallic eyes might be added and some parts might be gilded. Masks tend to be light only covering the face whilst wigs and other headgear are sometimes also worn. Costumes complete the transformation of the performer into the character.

(Click on above images to enlarge them.)

Altogether, there are about 450 different Noh masks, and the subtle variations determine, for example, a character’s social rank and age. It is the actor’s task to bring their fixed expressions to life; tilting the mask upwards indicates happiness or laughter, tilting the mask down means sadness or grief. Gestures and movements are also used to convey emotions. Before a performance, the actor would contemplate the mask in his room in front of the mirror, becoming one with the role. According to Waley, only the shite, his tsure and his tomo wear masks, never one of the other characters. As Eric C. Rath points out there are roughly five different groups of masks: Okina (all masks used for the “three rites,” shikisanban), demon, old men (jo), men and women.

Traditionally, only men perform in Noh theatre. Playing women is the greatest challenge for them. Zeami’s instructions, taken from Waley’s book, on how a female part should be acted, is well worth quoting, I think:

“Women should be impersonated by a young actor. … It is very difficult to play the part of a Princess or lady-in-waiting, for little opportunity presents itself of studying their august behaviour and appearance. Great pains must be taken to see that robes and cloaks are worn in the correct way. These things do not depend on the actor’s fancy but must be carefully ascertained. The appearance of ordinary ladies such as one is used to see about one is easy to imitate. … In acting the part of a dancing-girl, mad-woman or the like, whether he carry the fan or some fancy thing (a flowering branch, for instance) the actor must carry it loosely; his skirts must trail low so as to hide his feet; his knees and back must not be bent, his body must be poised gracefully. As regards the way he holds himself – if he bends back, it looks bad when he faces the audience; if he stoops, it looks bad from behind. But he will not look like a woman if he holds his head too stiffly. His sleeves should be as long as possible, so that he never shows his fingers.”

In her book, Susan Stevie lists the various female masks: “The Omi-Onna is for a woman with a lover’s disturbed heart; Masukami for a female character on the brink of madness, or possessed by a spirit; Fukai is for middleaged female characters who would have experienced the highs and lows of love and life; and Magojiro is used to portray slightly more mature young women.” Rath notes that ““mud eyes” (deigan) and “long hair” (masukami) portray suffering and deranged women”. The latter reminds me strongly of the depiction of ‘fallen women’ in Victorian images; they are often shown with loose, disarranged hair and/or uncovered head.

The mask in our collection represents Hannya, one of those characters with messy hair. In addition to the strands of hair attached to the mask, the actor would often wear a wig of wild hair as well. Hannya is not so much a person, but rather the personification of the jealousy and fury a scorned woman might feel. The moment the protagonist dons this mask, usually in the second act, the spectator knows that the once (usually beautiful) demure woman the actor had portrayed before has become out of control, full of hatred and aggression. The skin tone of the mask depends on the social status of the woman; white symbolises a lady of high rank, red a woman of lesser status and, as Rath explains, “where the Hannya is a dangerous demon and not the spirit of a jealous woman, a very dark-skinned ‘black Hannya’ is used.” Looking at our exemplar, I guess it might be one of the latter. The bulging eyes, horns, fierce, fanged mouth and deep frown are further typical characteristics.

There are various ideas about the origin of the name ‘Hannya’. One is that the mask as it is known today was developed by a monk from Nara called Hannya-bo during the Muromachi era (ca. 1330s-1573). He lived approximately during the late 15th and early 16th century. Thus, the name of the mask carver was adapted for the personification. Apparently, there had already been earlier forms during the Kamakura era (1192-1333) whose features where less refined and accomplished. Rath suggests that the word derives from the Sanskrit word for wisdom, pranja, “as in the Prajna Parmitra in the esoteric Buddhist text known in English as the Perfection of Wisdom.” He further explains that Hannya is closely linked to the snake, a Tantric metaphor for fertility and the gaining of wisdom. Hence, the actor representing Hannya also wears a silk costume with a ‘scaly’ pattern, and the mask is kept in a bag of the same material. According to Rath, the most fearful version of Hannya is the ‘Ja’ or ‘serpent’.

Plays that include the Hannya masks are Aoi no Ue, Dojoji, Kurozaka and Momijigair. The first includes the famous character of Lady Rokujo who transforms into Hannya because she is betrayed by her husband Prince Genji. A translation of the play can be found in Arthur Waley’s book. The photo shows a typical robe style that would be worn by her rival Aoi. Dojoji tells the story of the girl Kiyohime whose father teases her about marrying a priest called Anchin. However, Anchin is not interested in marrying the girl; he flees to his temple and hides under a bell. Kiyohime follows him and, in her fury, turns into Hannya. Serpent-like she wraps herself around the bell, and the heat of her anger melts the bell and kills the reluctant lover. Eventually, only the prayers of the other priests can defeat Hannya and she disappears.

(Click on above images to enlarge them.)

Masks IIIAs so often with early gifts and bequests for the university’s collection, we don’t have a lot of information regarding the origin of the mask. The sticker on the margin on the back mentions the name ‘Black-Roberts’ and the year 1912 (see photo). A search in the university’s annual reports reveals an entry for the 1913-14:

“Gifts and loans to the Museum include:-

1.The Black-Roberts Collection of Weapons, containing about ninety objects, loaned to the Museum by the Misses Black-Roberts, and collected by the late Dr. Black-Roberts, and old student of the College.”

I can only assume that the mask formed part of that collection and that the loan turned into a permanent one. I can also only guess that our mask represents Hannya as there are several other masks of Noh theatre that look similar, for example, Fudo, the God of Fire, Shikami, a malicious spirit or monster, and Shishiguchi, a demon or goblin. However, as the Hannya mask is one of the most famous ones and the features seem to fit, I decided that is was her, the evil, jealous spirit or demon of a woman. She certainly seems the most interesting one. As playwright and poet William Congreve (1670-1729) put it so aptly, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”


Coldiron, Margaret. “Lions, Wichtes and Happy Old Men: Some Parallels between Balinese and Japanese Ritual Masks”. Asian Theatre Studies, vol. 22, no 2, 2005, pp. 227-248. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137132. Accessed 26 Sep. 2017.

Mack, John et al. Masks: The Art of Expression. The British Museum P, 1996.

Rath, Eric C. The Ethos of noh: Actors and Their Art. Harvard UP, 2004.

Suan, Stevie. The Anime Paradox : Patterns and Practices Through the Lens of Traditional Japanese Theater, BRILL, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, .

Created from aber on 2017-09-26 08:43:01.

Waley, Arthur. The No Plays of Japan. George Allen and Unwin, 1921.