Sunday, February 15, 2009

Frans Masereel's La ville






As many other terms in comics the expression "wordless comics" is a misnomer (we've seen "comics" about the holocaust and "comic books" that are magazines, for instance). Words may appear in these comics as part of the drawings (as store signs, hotel signs, letters, etc...). Another possibility is "mute comics," but it's another misnomer because the characters are allowed to talk to each other. We just don't read what they're saying, as in most comics, or we read what they're saying as images or visual metaphors. "Pantomime comics" is even worst because the characters don't communicate through sign language. I could call them "iconic comics," I suppose (if the image of a written word is still a pure icon, that is), but I kind of like the word "wordless," so, "wordless" it is, misnomer and all...
Another related problem is: can I call these comics, "comics?" Most people call them "picture stories" or "woodcut [or engraving, or etching] cycles." But, in the latter case, they're just describing the technique which produced the images. It's as if I called a comic: a drawing cycle. Anyway, even if I'm the only one to call many of these stories "comics" (including them in the expanded field), Frans Masereel's woodcut cycles are frequently co-opted to the comics field. The same thing happens to Otto Nückel's Schicksal, Eine Geschicte in Bildern (destiny, a story in pictures; Delphin Verlag, n. d. [in Wordless Books, Abrams, 2008, David Beronä conjectures: 1928] or Lynd Ward's oeuvre). Since I mentioned Wordless Books, the subtitle is: The Original Graphic Novels (see what I mean?).
Schiksal's original drawings were leadcut prints (István Szeguedi Szütz's My War's [John Lane, 1931] and William Gropper's Alay-Oop's [Coward-McCann, 1930] original art are drawings) but Frans Masereel and almost all the others (Lynd Ward, Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, Giacomo Patri, James Reid, Laurence Hyde) did their original art with woodcuts or wood engravings. I don't know if it's correct to join all these different artists, living in different countries, under one label and call them an artists' group (?). Probably not, but they were pacifists and their politics (maybe with James Reid's and Bochořáková-Dittrichová's exception) leaned to the left. Talking about Masereel, then, there are two reasons for his chosen technique. One is pratical (used with broad lines woodcut is adequate to the urgency of his drawings during WWI in Geneva's newspaper La feuille; the leaf). The other is cultural and related to Germany (even if Frans Masereel was, not Hergé, the best Belgian comics artist that ever lived): "under the influence of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and the Fauves and the prints of Munch, and inspired by the early German workshops of Lucas Cranach I, Albrecht Dürer and others, the artists of Die Brücke ([the bridge] first in Dresden, then in Berlin) brought about the most significant revival of the woodcut as an avant-garde expressive in the 20th century. Rejecting (and rejected by) the formal academies and Secession group (Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt and others), whose leading artists produced sumptuous and painterly etchings and lithographs during the 19th-century printmaking revival, the artists of Die Brücke set up the Neue Secession, an exhibition group, and, while also working in other printmaking media, adopted the woodcut as their most powerful means of expression. They quickly abandoned a decorative fin-de-siècle style (c. 1906), and, combining European influences with African motifs and forms known to them from the recent discoveries of European explorers and exhibits in the ethnographic collections in Dresden, they worked aggressively on the woodblocks to produce sharp angles, broad diagonals and roughly hewn, shaded patches. Each of the four leading artists of Die Brücke (Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff) all created primitive nudes of haunting beauty or savagery, startling and intense portraits, and vivid and dynamic landscapes and townscapes. [...]The woodcut flourished all over Germany until World War II in an explosion of printmaking activity that included the production of numbers of fine portfolios, such as German Graphics of the Present (Leipzig, 1920) and Ganymede (Munich, 1919–25), and the inclusion of original woodcuts in literary publications, such as Der Zweemann (Hannover, 1919–26) and Genius (Leipzig, 1919–21) and Socialist political pamphlets including Revolution (Munich, 1913) and Die Aktion (Berlin, 1911–32), in which woodcut was considered as a medium worthy of proletarian political art." (Katharina Mayer Haunton, here: The woodcut was humbler, cheaper, more democratic than oil painting.
Frans Masereel's La ville (the city; Albert Morancé, 1925) not only could fit the above formal description, it also shared Die Brücke's ambivalent view of the city. On the one hand they believed in Nietzsche's critique of modern life, on the other hand they, like the Futurists, were fascinated by its energy.
Frans Masereel's La ville is, like Hokusai's Fugako hyakkei, an example of the panoptical view that we can find in what I called: the locus. What he mostly sees though, is exploitation, alienation, poverty, sickness, despair, death, desire, drunkenness. Conversely he just puts on the other balance plate: love, poetry, and not much else... (he certainly liked cats...) Masereel's city is as black as woodcut ink. I can't say, after all these years, that I disagree with him... greed continues to be the creed...

1., 2., 3. Frans Masereel's self-portraits:
1. at twenty in Art Nouveau style: 1909;
2. 1925 (detail);
3. 1957;
4. La feuille's front page with a politically naive cartoon by Masereel (November, 23, 1917);
5. still from Berthold Bartosch's animation film L'idée (The Idea) (1932; music by Arthur Honegger) based on various picture stories by Frans Masereel.

Frans Masereel's Geschichte Ohne Worte (story without words; K. Wolff, 1922):

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