Woodcut Novel By Fontenot, Tyler
The novel in woodcuts or the wordless novel is an artistic and narrative medium that emerged during the first half of the 20th century. The first novel in woodcuts was 25 Images de la passion d’un homme [25 Images of a Man’s Passion], published in 1918 by the Flemish engraver Frans Masereel. Wordless novels rose to prominence in the 1920s, reaching a zenith of popularity in the 1930s that waned during the Second World War due to competition with sound film and anti-socialist censorship, especially in Nazi Germany and the United States. As the narrative is communicated in pictures rather than in words, novels in woodcuts are accessible to international audiences regardless of language or literacy. This universal comprehensibility helped to disseminate to an international audience the critical depictions of capitalism, modern alienation, and the industrial metropolitan space that run through many wordless novels. History has until recently largely forgotten the impact of the novel in woodcuts, but some of the first graphic novelists, like Art Spiegelman and Will Eisner, have acknowledged these early wordless novels as a major inspiration for the development of the graphic novel form.
In order to understand novels in woodcuts, one must first understand the principal pioneer of the form: Frans Masereel. Masereel worked as a graphic artist with the Red Cross and the International Pacifist Movement in Geneva during the First World War, where he was exposed to the mangled bodies and horror stories of soldiers returning from the Western Front. Like many artists and novelists living through the First World War, Masereel’s narratives commonly communicate an emotional reaction to the dehumanising nature of industrialised warfare,1 alienation in the modern urban environment, and the worker’s struggle in particular. As such, Masereel’s first novel in woodcuts, 25 Images de la passion d’un homme [25 Images of the Passion of a Man], follows the story of a young protagonist who leads a group of workers in an uprising against a factory owner, resulting in the young man’s arrest and subsequent execution.
Woodcutting is a type of relief printing, whereby the artist carves into a block of solid material (especially wood, linoleum, or lead), then rolls the block with ink and presses the block onto paper to create prints. A carefully designed series of these prints is arranged in order to create a novel in woodcuts. The early 20th century heralded a revival of woodcutting as a means of artistic expression, especially with the German expressionists, who found the medium perfect for communicating their angst towards social injustice in stark black and white. Masereel had certainly been spurred on by the expressionist woodcuts, but it is important to note that Masereel developed his own unique style, and the two certainly influenced one another as they evolved. The German expressionists’ repeated portrayal of dark, gargantuan, unfeeling cityscapes is one such element that clearly made its way through the evolution of wordless novels, and that legacy lives on in the modern graphic novel. As time went on, Masereel’s narrative style also developed concomitantly with German expressionist films, such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927). Because the reader makes the choice to pore over a single image in search of meaning or to quickly flip through a series of images, the novelist in woodcuts works with a set of possibilities that combines those of the filmmaker, the single-image engraver, and the prose novelist. Although the novel in woodcuts evolved alongside film, the popularity of film eventually overshadowed the novel in woodcuts.
While Mansereel’s work draws on the aesthetics and spirit of German Expressionism, it also refashioned diegetic elements of medieval and early Renaissance woodcuts. Masereel modernised the epic biblical scenes of Albrecht Dürer’s turn of the 16th-century woodcuts such as The Large Passion, thereby secularising the religious motifs associated with Renaissance woodcuts. For example, 25 Images of the Passion of a Man tells the story of a modern working man who is put on trial for organising labourers against a factory owner. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is illuminated before a crucifix, suggesting that the working-class hero supplants the figure of Christ as the modern martyr. By the end of his life, Masereel had produced over 50 novels in woodcuts, including his most famous and longest work containing 167 images, Passionate Journey, which was published in 1919 (Spiegelman 2010, x).
Although Frans Masereel worked mostly with woodcuts, the term ‘novel in woodcuts’ is often used to describe novels made not only from woodcuts, but also from wood engravings, linocuts, and leadcuts. Otto Nückel pioneered the leadcut novel with his 1926 work containing 190 images, Schicksal [Destiny]. This is said to have been borne more out of necessity than desire, as H Lehmann-Jaupt notes that Nückel ‘took to it in the days of war, when there was no proper wood available in Germany, and he has become so familiar with it that he has never gone back to wood’ (Beronä 2008, 93). Following the Masereelian and German expressionist punctilio of spotlighting ethical pandemonium, Destiny chronicles the unfortunate life of a modern German woman who suffers abuse by her father, impregnation by a travelling salesman, infanticide, imprisonment, prostitution, axe-murder, and death while being pursued by police. Scholar Martin S. Cohen calls Destiny ‘perhaps the most pathetic of woodcut novels and one of the most memorable’ (Cohen 1977, 23).
Lynd Ward, perhaps the most widely known novelist in woodcuts today, has written that Destiny was a major inspiration for him (Ward 1974, 7). Although termed novels in woodcuts, Ward’s novels were in fact the first to utilise wood engravings rather than woodcuts, the difference being that woodcuts are made by cutting along the side grain of a wooden plank, whereas wood engravings are made by turning the plank on end and using an engraver’s burin to cut into the grain. This technique was popularised at the turn of the 18th century by the English engraver and natural historian, Thomas Bewick, but was shunned by the German expressionists and Masereel, who found woodcuts more apt at provoking an emotional reaction from the reader (Cohen 1977, 15). Like Bewick, Ward used high-quality engraving tools typically reserved for metal engravers, carving into the end grain of boxwood in order to achieve finer lines and therefore more detailed prints.
After being exposed to Destiny and Masereel’s third novel, an iteration of the Icarus myth entitled The Sun, Ward created his own wordless novel, Gods’ Man, published in 1929 (Ward 1974, 4). Gods’ Man rolls Art Deco and German expressionist aesthetics into the Faustian Bildungsroman of an artist’s seduction and abuse by money, power, and sex, ultimately highlighting the allure of pastoral simplicity. The following year, Milt Gross published He Done Her Wrong, a cartoonish wordless novel designed to parody the serious quality and ideological heavy-handedness of previous wordless novels, especially Gods’ Man.
Like Masereel, Lynd Ward’s works largely follow the struggles of working-class people against a background of looming skyscrapers that are as dark, angular, and alienating as they were for Masereel. This oppressive cityscape makes it into every one of Ward’s six novels in woodcuts, if only briefly in his third, Wild Pilgrimage, which features a Depression-era working man leaving the fruitless city in a luckless search for an amicable life in the countryside. These characteristically dark and unfeeling urban backgrounds were common in early wordless novels and thread an unmistakable trace through graphic novels as they developed in the latter half of the 20th century. It could even be said that wordless novelists such as Ward were nascent graphic novelists. Will Eisner, famous for creating the early graphic novels A Contract with God and The Spirit, has acknowledged Lynd Ward’s influence on his own style. Eisner, who coined the term ‘graphic novel’, claimed that Ward ‘established an historical precedent for modern graphic storytelling’ (Beronä 2008, 13). Wordless novelists’ willingness to portray adult subject matter and politically subversive themes also foreshadows the modern adult graphic novel.
Of course, not all wordless novels featured the working man, political strife, and urbanity. Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová was a Czech painter, illustrator, and engraver whose novel in woodcuts, Childhood, sidesteps the social upheaval in the streets depicted in so many wordless novel, instead carving out a cheerfully conservative scene of a middle-class family in the Czech countryside: a mother cooks and cleans, a father hunts and builds snowmen with his playful children, and everyone goes to church together. However, like The Sun and Gods’ Man, Childhood is also the tale of an artist’s search for vision and inspiration.
Like Childhood, Giacomo Patri’s novel in linocuts, White Collar, features not blue-collar workers, but the life of a professional man and his family. Unlike Childhood, however, White Collar puts into perspective the financial and social struggles of white-collar folk. The main protagonist is a man who becomes disillusioned with the efficacy of capitalism as he loses job after job in the advertising world, eventually forcing him to move his nuclear family from a picket-fenced house to an apartment and finally to a homeless shelter. Eventually, the man embraces the plight of the labour union, seeking to unite blue-collar and white-collar workers against the greed of capitalists. This led the US Labor Movement to officially endorse the novel shortly after publication (Beronä 2008, 195). Like Ward, the FBI placed Patri on a ‘subversive persons’ list, and the California Labor School in San Francisco, where Patri taught, was closed under pressure from McCarthyism in the 1950s (ibid. 195).
At least ten years after the decline of the form’s popularity, Laurence Hyde released his own novel in woodcuts in Canada, entitled Southern Cross (1951). The novel takes us through the American seizure of the Bikini Atoll, the rape and expulsion of the indigenous population, and the subsequent use of the area for nuclear bomb testing. Hyde was praised for engraving dynamic curvatures depicting waves and clouds in wood with newfound perfection, and scholars have recently acknowledged the position of Southern Cross as a precursor to modern Canadian graphic novels, although no direct influence has been located (Beronä 2008, 203).