Monday, August 16, 2010

Graphic Witness: Wordless Woodcut Novels of the Early 20th Century

The arrival of the latest Library of America catalog in this home is always an exciting event, indeed: a reminder that, yes, some poor misguided souls do still send catalogs through the "snail mail"; a harbinger of the same old dead men as we can normally buy for $3.99 at any old grocery store (though this time with archival ink and acid-free paper!); and, at least in the case of the most recent catalog, the revealing of a little subgenre of books hitherto unnoticed by me.

The Library of America has decided to reprint a set of woodcut novels -- that is, novels told solely through a series of woodcuts, generally without words. The six featured in the collection were created in the 1920s or 30s by an American artist named Lynd Ward.

I had never heard of the man, nor the handful of other artists who joined him in creating wood cut (or wood engraving, or linocut, or even lead cut) novels during the first half of the twentieth century -- but they are a bunch worth knowing. Though the novels they created probably never mounted beyond fifty titles, still they have an important role in history -- some call them the "original graphic novels." And the art... to be frank, I'm no great purveyor nor observer of the visual arts, and, as description of the beauty of a mare is really best left to a stallion, I will say only that the art is "worth a look" -- or even two. So I went and I took a look.

Well, the lovely two-volume box set above shown and described is a mere $55.00 online, $70.00 otherwise, but in my case mere is more like more , as in more than I can afford. I took neither route, opting instead to search for the book on my local library's database... No luck, exactly -- but I did find the slightly older (2007), yet still lovely book pictured to the left here. Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde (deep breath) is a collection, I'm convinced, well worth reading (or observing, or looking at, or staring open-mouthed at) -- largely because of the rarity and intrinsic value of the four wordless "novels" it contains. Frankly, the introduction by George A. Walker stinks, and the afterword by Seth is too short and even then just okay. It is the novels themselves, which are rarely reprinted and of course very expensive and hard to find in the originals, that naturally make the book.

Graphic Witness offers a nice variety too: from the vigorous, though imperfect technique of Frans Masereel, whom many consider the father of the subgenre; to the German-like style of Lynd Ward, already mentioned. All four books in the collection have distinct styles -- I'm sure I could match individual images with their appropriate books -- yet they share much. All the images in the book are dark, strict -- stern. And, while I suppose it is possible to soften the sharp lines of wood cuts and other forms of relief printing, as Masereel toyed with, all depicted objects are naturally hard-edged and very well formed. Now, I might say more on the artistic aspects of these four novels and their ilk, if only I were not a mule but a stallion. Perhaps, to mix my metaphors, though appropriately, I will one day find myself out to be truly a swan, but for now I will move on to more solid ground:

Narrative art: telling a picture merely through images. Seems challenging enough to me, without adding political subtexts. I don't know that all of the artists in the collection were "hardcore socialists" as I have heard tell, but I must confess that all were politically motivated and -- as I have come to expect from all politically motivated artists, not just Russians -- were remarkably fervent in their beliefs of social injustice and inequality. Frankly, I regard as within the realm of common sense that the more fortunate should aid in the rise of the less fortunate; that an ideal society is one in which all citizens are above a certain financial line; and that equality is more than just an ideal, to be looked for only in the words of misty-eyed professors and their students. So these artists believed, so they used the tools that came most at hand. How laborious the process of creating some one hundred wood cuts must have been! Even then, telling a complete, coherent, well done story in under one images is... well, to me even a wall of text seems much less intimidating.

To communicate information through images -- pure ideas, with little room for individual interpretation -- is a task I would certainly never want to get stuck with. Impossible, even, because as soon as someone tries, they create symbols, visual objects that a group of people associate with the same idea or group of ideas. Christianity, for example, has a very large catalog of symbols, many manifesting in or even being created for, narrative art. Beyond symbols, on that path, lay letters, words -- in a word, language, a collection of arbitrary symbols whose meaning a group of people agree upon.

History of narrative art is long and full of holes, but these days it seems the health of this particular art couldn't be better. While, in the days these woodcut novels were made comic books were sorely looked down upon -- leading the woodcut artists to distance themselves by avoiding comics mainstays like word balloons and multiple panels per page -- these days comics have reached literary pretensions all their own, in the guise of the New Yorker-acceptable graphic novel. For a bridge that connects these two acceptable media, I would advice the reading of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels by David A. Beronä, a book that no doubt has much to add to (or even correct :) all of what I have said here. Read it and let me know -- or perhaps I'll have to read it myself!

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