I was happy to hear about this show, as it coincided with my own curiosity about Giacomo Patri’s White Collar (1940), a depression era story told in woodcuts, which the Labor Archives and Research Center currently has on display at the SFSU library. While the influence of 19th Century and German Expressionist woodcuts was obvious, I struggled a bit with putting this work in larger context. Spiegelman’s presentation and David A. Beronä’s excellent survey book Wordless Books: the Original Graphic Novels have really helped in this regard, giving me both an overview of the genre and the characteristics of the work. While there is some humorous work, generally it seems that topics like morality, war, and social injustice motivated prolific artists like Franz Masereel and Lynd Ward to spend endless hours physically carving images into blocks of wood.
|Fantasy sequences from LARC's display of White Collar by Giacomo Patri (1940)|
|Gustave Dore, St. John's Vision. 1866.|
|Art Spiegelman. Prisoner from Hell Planet, Pages 3 & 4|
After this story, his presentation of the artists and their works began in earnest. “Don’t worry if you get a little lost while you’re watching,” he told us. “I’m hoping you will careen between my words and these picture stories until you’re left as breathlessly unbalanced as I am.” As the slideshow of artist's work unfolded, I found myself slipping into an unconscious understanding of the imagery as I tried to follow the thread of unspoken narrative, helped along by Johnston’s musical interpretations. It’s one thing to hold these books in your hands and puzzle over their content alone, it’s another to see them as a performance and puzzle over their sometimes abstract content with the rest of the audience. The band had its best moment during the closing piece, a new work by Spiegelman called Shaping Thought (there's a bit of it in the trailer above), that emphasized the best qualities of both the musicians and the cartoonist, a true collaborative effort. The historical segments on Masereel and Ward were the core of show; the innovators who established the elements of the genre that everyone else would follow in one way or another, and I found myself truly intrigued by their work.
|Franz Masereel. Two plates from Passionate Journey (1919)|
Frans Masereel (1889-1972) had a life-long devotion to the woodcut medium. Between the publication of his first portfolio in 1917 and his death in 1972, Masereel created numerous book illustrations and over 50 wordless books. He grew up in a middle class family in Ghent, Belgium, and he moved to Geneva at the beginning of WWI, were he worked for the International Red Cross and the International Pacifist Movement. He became a political cartoonist, and throughout his life he depicted the brutality of war, the dehumanization resulting from the industrial revolution, and the complexities of everyday city life in his novels and illustrations. The line work and composition of Masereel’s work remind me very much of Goya’s engravings (particularly the Disasters of War series) and the work of Masereel’s contemporary Käthe Kollwitz, who frequently created woodcuts commenting on similar themes of war and labor strife. Spiegelman choose to show sequences from Passionate Journey (1919) and The City (1925), both works that show the joys and tragedies of relationships and city life.
|Franz Masereel. Two plates from The City (1925)|
|Franz Masereel. Plate from Notre Temps (1952)|
|Käthe Kollwitz. Memorial Sheet to Karl Liebknecht. 1919.|
|Käthe Kollwitz. The Volunteers, 1923.|
In 2010, Spiegelman edited a collection of six of Ward’s novels for the Library of America, so he was able to spend a chunk of time exploring Ward’s work. In the Wordless! Show, he focused on three of Ward’s novels:
God’s Man (1929), a classic tale of an artist that makes a deal with the devil for fame and fortune, only to lose everything after becoming disillusioned with fame in the city and finding true love in a rural, natural setting.
|Lynd Ward. Plate from God's Man, 1929.|
|Lynd Ward. Two plates from Wild Pilgrimage, 1932.|
|Lynd Ward. Two plates from Vertigo, 1937.|
I can also see why Spiegelman decided not to include White Collar in the show. Patri’s work,while it does have unique qualities of its own, did borrow a lot of ideas from Wild Pilgrimage: the orange printed pages of inner dialog, the occasional use of words on signage to make the meaning of a page clear, and the general theme of the injustices done to working people during the Depression era.
Since White Collar piqued my interest in wordless novels, I have recently found one or two others of interest; Combustion, a 1998 novel by Chris Lanier in which a solider at a protest watches a man light himself on fire, after which the solider gradually comes to sympathize with the enemy (very much in the Masereel tradition), and the Raven and the Red Ball, a light-hearted children's book featuring a game between a dog and a mischievous raven, which perfectly utilizes the woodcut style to show flight and movement.
|Raven and the Red Ball. Sarah Drummond. 2013|
|Combustion by Chris Lanier, 1998.|