[Issue #6, Fall 2001]
The Idea and Story Without Words
By Frans Masereel
Shambhala Press, 2000
Reviewed by Chris Lanier
The preservation of an artistic canon is centrifugally contentious business.
Most of the battle takes place along the periphery, where the currents of
faddishness are most strongly felt. New names announce themselves loudly,
while older (though not necessarily old) names slip back noiselessly. It's
safe to say that the names which lie undisturbed at the center represent
work of genuine, supra-fashionable value. Unfortunately, the converse is
not true. Those who fade are not all charlatans and pretenders, and sometimes
we are culturally poorer for their departure. Frans Masereel, the Belgian
woodcut artist, is one of these whose departure we should mourn. Two of
his woodcut books are being returned to print, and while they won't restore
him to the pantheon, I'm glad some of his treasures have been brought closer
At the pinnacle of his popularity, in the 1920s and 30s, his books of prints
received glowing forewords from Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. He illustrated
several novels of his close friend Romain Rolland, who served as a kind
of patron saint to the pacifist movement gathered in Switzerland, where
Masereel spent the First World War (it was Masereel's involvement with the
pacifists that barred his return to Belgium for many years, and he spent
most of his adult life in France and Germany). In Geneva, making brush-and-ink
illustrations for the anti-war journal La Feuille, Masereel developed
the high-contrast visual style that was to serve him so well in his woodcuts.
His art almost always derived its impetus from the social problems of his
day: he returned again and again to scenes of workers' strikes, mobilizing
armies, and the industrial metropolitan maze, which is shown towering over
its inhabitants both as a testament to human labor, and as an oppressive
weight of smokestacks.
Much of the work is propagandistic in its impulses, but it has a clarity
of design and an exuberance of execution that lifts the best examples far
above the realm of disposable agitprop. When living in Berlin, Masereel's
closest artist friend was George Grosz. While both shared an indignation
toward social cruelty and hypocrisy, and both made an attempt to bring art
out of the museums and into the streets, it is hard to imagine two more
opposed temperaments. Grosz's genius was to distil his pessimism and misanthropy
into a kind of visual poison. Masereel, for all the despair and tragedy
in his work, was fundamentally an optimist about the human animal. Perhaps
this was partly due to his eye for its staggering, kaleidoscopic variety.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, in the first monograph on the artist,
claimed that if Masereel's woodcuts were the only documents of his era to
survive, the entire world could be reconstructed from them.
Of course, some of the names of these Masereel supporters and compatriots
have suffered their own erosions. Masereel is chiefly known today among
bibliophiles as the pioneer of a genre of book called the "woodcut
novel" or the "novel without words." These "novels"
are made of a series of woodcuts, one to a page, without captions or word
balloons, strung together in a narrative sequence. This technique is obviously
related to the comic strip, but it also finds antecedents in the narrative
frescoes that adorn the walls of European churches, and in the woodcut "cycles"
that treat a theme in a series of pictures that illustrate its variations.
One of the more well-known examples of the latter is Holbein the Younger's
"Dance of Death," itself an adaptation of a type of church decoration,
which shows a retinue of skeletons leading people of all ages and social
classes on toward death (Masereel updated the "Dance of Death"
more than once, first to delineate the horrors of the First World War, and
then, during the Second World War, utilizing it as unifying principle for
a portfolio of drawings culled from his own experiences fleeing Paris from
Masereel's work in the "woodcut novel" genre contains his greatest
achievement, Mon Livre d'Heures, (kept in print by City Lights books
under the title Passionate Journey). Mon Livre d'Heures is
a small masterpiece, a kind of autobiography of the spirit. The story is
characterized by a love of human labor, a sacramental devotion to the everyday,
and a view of human identity as a complex interpenetration of circumstances,
both personal and historical. It ends with a bold intrusion of metaphysics,
as unexpected as it is profoundly affecting.The two Masereel books that
have been returned to print are also woodcut novels, Story Without Words
and The Idea, published together in one volume by Shambhala Press.
Neither are up to the standard of Mon Livre d'Heures, but both are
very enjoyable. As Thomas Mann wrote of Masereel's lesser works: "They
are all so strangely compelling, so deeply felt, so rich in ideas that one
never tires of looking at them."
The slighter of the two books is Story Without Words. Its images
are strung along the line of a clever conceit: a man tries to woo a woman
he's smitten with, and all his sweet words, bragging, and imploring are
shown by shifting the background behind their figures. When he says he'll
show her around the town, a restaurant table appears, bedecked with fine
food. When he brags about his strength, a circus-ring with a weightlifter
appears. A few juxtapositions clap together polar opposites that become
two sides of the same coin: in one panel, the man doffs a top hat, a flower
jutting from the lapel of his tuxedo, feeling like a millionaire; in the
next panel he is shown in rags, a poor beggar. In one panel he is kneeling
in prayer before the woman, in front of a church; in the next panel he is
crawling after her, while in the street a dog tries to sniff the hind end
of its prospective mate. Altogether, it plays like a pure visual distillation
of every love song ever sung.
Illustration from Story Without Words
Masereel sticks to his theme so monomaniacally, the cleverness transmutes
into a visionary erotic principle. The man comes to embody seemingly endless
states. The visual literalization of these states renders them concrete:
these are things he is not merely talking about, these are things he is
becoming. In its headlong encyclopedism it recalls Walt Whitman (Masereel
illustrated an edition of Whitman's Calamus poems, and shares his
unpretentious sexual frankness). The suggestion arises that, through love,
we become a multitude. Love expands us into all the particulars of the human
experience, from the drudgery of manual labor, to the weightless joy of
At the end of the book, the woman finally succumbs (though not until the
man threatens to kill himself). After making love, however, the man loses
interest and departs. The final image (of each of them weeping, separated
by the word "ENDE") seems to suggest, not without a certain detached
humor, that misery is the essential state of love. Masereel seems more interested
in describing a psychological process than in any particular moralizing.
One can disapprove of the man as being a cad, narcissistic, in love with
the idea of being in love rather than a real person, or one can disapprove
of the woman's stand-offishness, coldly refusing the effusive exertions
of her suitor. For those who are prone to high drama in their romantic entanglements,
Story Without Words can stand as something of a handbook -- you can
leaf through it to find the particular image that corresponds to your present
state of agony or ecstasy.
The women in Masereel's books are never as fully developed as the men --
they are often muses, sometimes comrades, but never as fleshed-out as their
male counterparts. Masereel's tendency to view women as ideals rather than
complex human beings perhaps finds its most radical expression in The
Idea, where an idea is literally embodied in the form of a naked woman.
When a pondering man is struck by a lightning-bolt of inspiration, a naked
woman pops -- like Athena -- from his brow. Despite the limitations inherent
in using something as tangible as a body to represent something as intangible
as an idea, Masereel manages to coax an amazing amount of mileage from his
Illustrations from The Idea
When the Idea is sent off into the world (she bids adieu to the thinker
as she climbs into an envelope), her nakedness is immediately met with shock
and outrage. Her nakedness stands for a purity or a truth that the conventional
minds of status quo opinion can't bear, so they attack her and clothe her,
in an attempt to tame the Idea, co-opt her, coerce her into acceptability.
The enemies of the Idea make up a wonderful gallery of grotesques, all bug
eyes and shriveled limbs. Every panel is crammed with faces stacked on top
of one another, bodies gesturing wildly, and all sorts of drastically telescoped
perspectives, making this among the most visually dense (and visually playful)
of Masereel's works.
Once the Idea is dressed respectably, she is sent out into the street, but
upon finding a receptive man in a working-class quarter, she immediately
lifts her skirt (there is a certain humor in the equation of the profligate
or alluring nature of the Idea with an unrepentant exhibitionism: a flash
of revelation as represented by a flasher). In my favorite sequence, this
man falls in love with the Idea in all her nakedness, and is sent to prison
as a consequence. In prison, the Idea comes to him, and he suckles at her
breast, nourished by her, as other prisoners look on in awe, envy, or wonder.
The prisoner is blindfolded and lead out, with the Idea before him, to be
shot. The bullet passes through both Idea and prisoner -- the prisoner slumps,
but the Idea simply walks away, raising her fist in defiance of the executioner.
She grieves, and in the graveyard where the young man is buried (his coffin
has been carried there by a large crowd that, we suppose, is simmering with
wounded revolutionary sentiment) she accepts garments that are handed to
her by ghoulish skeletons.
The Idea's struggle is a struggle to reveal herself, to be known, and not
to be trapped, covered, besmirched. An academic tries to capture her in
a book, and if there is a member of the local constabulary in the picture,
he is always obliged to give chase. As she makes her varied escapes, the
metaphor gathers an interesting (and perhaps even unintended) potency that
seems at odds with its original conception. While casting a naked woman
as an idea may serve to idealize or objectify womanhood, her struggles become
a struggle for her truth, her identity, in the face of hostile (and mostly
male) projections and needs. They try to make her into the image they want
to see, and in her refusal to conform to that image, she becomes an emblem
of female resistance. In one image, she jumps -- naked -- into a camera.
While people flee from her, trying to cover their eyes (or the eyes of their
children), they flock toward a violent movie, and watch on the screen a
woman being stabbed to death. A woman's body, displayed in haloed nakedness,
becomes a terror and a threat; displayed as a corpse, it becomes entertainment.
Eventually, the Idea jumps into a printing press, and is spread throughout
the world. Masereel here takes delight in an extended riff on technologies
of communication. She travels through telegraph wires, she crosses seas
on radio waves: Masereel seems intoxicated by all the still-novel possibilities
of dissemination and reproduction. One picture, where the Idea skates on
wires above the head of a policeman (he brandishes his sword impotently
in her wake), could be pressed into service on a current editorial page.
It need only to be affixed with the provisional title: "Sex on the
Appropriately enough, The Idea itself was incarnated in other media
besides its original form as a woodcut novel; it was turned into an animated
film by the Czech animator Berthold Bartosch in 1932, at the suggestion
of Masereel's German publisher, Kurt Wolff. Adding to the technical novelty,
the score, by Arthur Honneger, was probably the first film score to utilize
an electronic instrument, the "Ondes Martinot," which emits the
same warbling glissando as a Theremin.
However, in this case, cinema didn't prove to be a very felicitous mode
of dispersal. The film ran into distribution problems, and Bartosch never
made any money for his effort. Bartosch, like Masereel, was a leftist; during
the First World War, he made an animated educational film on the socialist
theories of T. G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's founder. His friends described
him as a shy man, and he walked with a slight limp, the result of clubfoot.
He worked on the film in Paris, relocating from Berlin, where the political
situation for socialists and pacifists was rapidly deteriorating. Masereel
was initially engaged to collaborate with Bartosch, but when he found how
tedious and painstaking the work of animation was, he bowed out, giving
Bartosch free reign in his adaptation.
Bartosch's studio was an attic over the Vieux Colombier Theatre, roughly
six feet square. He worked there for two years, manipulating jointed paper
dolls and cut-paper "sets" (painted with the same bold lines as
Masereel's prints) on multiple planes of glass. The parallel glass panes
gave Bartosch multiple gradations of foreground and background to play with,
allowing for dramatic illusions of depth. They also allowed for complex
modulations of light. Sometimes he lit his tableaux from above, sometimes
from below, smearing some layers of glass with soap, and introducing intervening
layers of gauze on others. The light which shines through the finished strip
of celluloid is made of interpenetrating translucencies, burning with an
almost tactile luminescence. When the idea emerges from a glowing nimbus,
it looks as though she's the congealed substance of light itself. While
the film has an almost unearthly visual beauty, the changes Bartosch made
to Masereel's scenario diminish it. Gone is the humor and the at-times scatalogical
unpretentiousness of the original. Worst of all, he gives the Idea an almost
thoroughly passive role, hanging ghostlike in the background as men fight
and die for her. He prunes away the picaresque digressions, to focus in
and expand upon a worker's revolt that the Idea inspires. The revolt is
crushed by government troops, in what can be taken as a reprise of the quashing
of the Spartacist uprising of 1918.
It appears that at least some of the distribution problems The Idea
faced were ideological. There are two alternate title cards which exist
for the film, one underlining the Idea's affinity for the oppressed, the
other of attempting to soft-peddle it as a generalized idea, either artistic
or patriotic. It was banned outright in Germany. That it survived the war
at all is an accomplishment: it is the only Bartosch film that remains to
us (there exist a few tantalizing stills from a pacifist-themed film titled
Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares, which was destroyed by the
Nazis during the occupation of Paris). The existent print of The Idea
was pieced together from two partial prints, the original negative having
been obliterated. Despite these vagaries, the film made a strong impression
on those interested in animation's artistic possibilities, and it has come
to be considered the first narrative animated film to self-consciously align
itself with the aims of "fine art."
The one improvement Bartosch made to Masereel's original storyline is his
suggestion, at the very end, of the Idea's ultimate transcendence. I have
philosophical problems with Masereel's end for The Idea, which seems
too pat, too reflexively circular. The Idea reaches her apotheosis in liberation
and revolt, becoming so interwoven into the texture of thought that she
emerges from the music and clamor of the times; eventually she becomes a
cause for debate rather than a cause for revolution. She returns to the
thinker, only to be replaced by another Idea (this one a blonde). Sometimes
an idea is better than the person who thinks it; at the very least, a good
idea tends to outlive its creator. Especially as the Idea seems to escape
Masereel's original formulations for her, it comes as a disappointment to
see her reigned in at last, framed in a picture that the thinker hangs on
his wall, entered into the dead pages of history.
Idea and Story Without Words from Amazon.com
Chris Lanier (http://www.chrislanier.com)
is a writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco. His latest graphic novel,
was published in 1999 by Fantagraphics Books. He currently writes and animates
a weekly cartoon on the internet, Romanov, which can be found at
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