Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Silent Expressionists: Wordless! and Wordless Novels

On October 10th, Marc and I saw Wordless!, a presentation on wordless novels by Art Spiegelman in collaboration with jazz composer Phillip Johnston and a 6 man jazz band (including Johnson on soprano sax).  Spiegelman began the evening speaking about the concepts that make comics work, and the odd marriage of word & image, and then continued with animated slideshows of works by artists telling stories without words accompanied by Johnston and the band. In many ways, it felt very much like a series of short silent films with musical accompaniment and narrative interludes. The featured artists were A.B. Frost; Frans Masereel; H.M. Bateman; Lynd Ward; Otto Nückel; Milt Gross; Si Lewen and Wilhelm Busch, plus Spiegelman’s own work. We saw this show at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley; at this time the show is continuing to tour (see dates here).

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.
Spiegelman began his presentation by filling the audience in on his background between puffs on an e-cigarette (“I’m a nervous New Yorker” he said, peering over the podium). Many of the images used in this segment would be familiar to anyone who has read Breakdowns or has seen him speak before. He spoke about the literary importance of comics (covered in detail on Paris Review), and then got into the meat of the evening’s topic. He explained his need to develop a visual storytelling style that would be appropriate for telling his family story, and that he found himself attracted to the bold lines of the woodcut novels. When he was 22, he met Lynd Ward at a gallery opening, and upon asking Ward what comics he read, was surprised to learn that Ward’s father, a Methodist minister, had forbidden the funnies, and that the biblical engravings of Gustave Doré were Ward’s main inspiration. Spiegelman still found inspiration in Ward’s work, incorporating elements of the Expressionist woodcut style into Prisoner from Hell Planet, the harrowing story of his mother’s suicide.

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)
Although not included in the show, this plate from Masereel's 1952 book Notre Temps is typical of his work on the theme of war and poverty. The confining lines of the barbed wire and the strong lines of stakes contrast strongly with the horizontal lines of the background, giving the reader insight into the despair of the man in the center.

Franz Masereel. Plate from Notre Temps (1952)
Käthe Kollwitz. Memorial Sheet to Karl Liebknecht. 1919.
Käthe Kollwitz. The Volunteers, 1923.
Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was directly inspired by Masereel’s wordless novel The Sun (1919), which he discovered while spending a year abroad at the National Academy of Graphic Arts in Leipzip, Germany in 1926. He grew up in New York, and was a graduate of Columbia University. Dr. Harry Ward, the father who disapproved of comics, was a writer, social activist, and the first board Chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lynd inherited his father’s passion for nature and activism, and brought those themes into his novels.  Aside from his wordless novels, he was a prolific and successful book illustrator, winning both the Newberry and Caldecott Medals.

 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.
Wild Pilgrimage (1932) is a depression era story that follows the challenges of a man that leaves a factory town, is educated by a hermit in the woods, and then returns to challenge and be killed by the factory guards. The real innovation in this book is Ward’s effort to show the man’s inner life, by printing pages of fantasy/thought sequences in orange, returning to regular black ink in the real world.
Lynd Ward. Two plates from Wild Pilgrimage, 1932.
Vertigo (1937), a 230 page book that Ward considered his masterpiece, is the story of a girl, a boy, and an elderly gentleman, and the way their lives cross in the course of their lives. As he follows the lives of the characters, Ward shows the injustices and indignities of the Depression.

Lynd Ward. Two plates from Vertigo, 1937.
Seeing these images adds another layer of meaning and complexity to Prisoner from Hell Planet. Spiegelman uses the lessons of the woodcut artists by utilizing the bold lines of the woodcut style. Lines and textures run in all directions, leaving the reader’s eye with nowhere to rest, a compositional choice that lends a sense of visual anxiety to this raw and heartbreaking story of guilt and tragedy. In the final two panels, the geometric grid of bars and jail cells enclose him. The regular lines seems strangely peaceful after the chaos of the previous panels, yet we feel that he will be trapped in there forever as he says "Congratulations! You've committed the perfect crime... you put me in here.. shorted all my circuits.. cut my nerve endings... and crossed my wires... you murdered me Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap."

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.