Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Agony and Ecstasy

God’s Man: A Novel in Woodcuts, by Lynd Ward, Published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1929

He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too, by Milt Gross, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 2005

There may be more slender reeds on which to make a career decision to be an artist, but Lynd Ward’s first grade realization that his last name spelled backwards was “draw” has to rank up there as most miniscule. Virtually unknown today outside the rarefied atmosphere of woodblock print aficionados and graphic novel historians, Ward’s six wood engraving novels are true works of beauty and some are remarkably hard to track down in print anywhere.

His other works, mostly illustrations accompanying the text of classic novels and children’s books, remain more widely available, though his renown has long since lapsed. That’s a terrible shame for, as I’ve said, Ward’s painstaking work has a singular beauty well surpassing his inspiration, the Belgian painter Frans Masereel, widely considered a pioneer in narrative woodcut art.

Whereas Masereel’s cuts are blocky, the lines chunky and thick, almost impressionistic, Ward’s work is filled to bursting point with fine lines and tiny details. Consider the fluidity of this piece, with its roiling waves from Ward’s debut novel, God’s Man.

Or these pages from his follow-up work, Madman’s Drum where the simple black and white illustrations are rich with shades and tones, all done in carved wood.

The more prominent element of Masereel’s influence isn’t in the imagery of Ward’s work, but rather in the storytelling. Devoted to abstract sociocriticism, Masereel’s work often focuses on the sensitive artist’s difficulty in the crass world of commerce and bourgeoisie values. In 1920’s The Idea, a stymied artist gives birth, Zeus-like, of a miniature female form from out of his skull. That idea is then sent off in the mail, only to be attacked by older, top-hatted lechers, chased through the street by authorities, she provides succor to prisoners, is dropped in leaflet form from airplanes, etc.

Ward’s novel, released in 1929, the same week as the stock market crash, tells of an artist from the country who heads out for the big city, making a deal with a black cloaked figure for a stylus/paintbrush of enormous power. We then follow his journey as his art is commodified, celebrated, debased, and otherwise misunderstood by the masses. While making love to his model, he discovers her demonic mark and nature, then runs off to brood. After an incident in the street with a policeman and a woman, the artist is jailed, escapes, flees to the countryside, marries, has a child, then dies.

The morality of the story is overt, though the imagery seems clichéd to us nowadays, but the draw of the tale is still powerful and compelling. Ward spent most of his artistic life making similar statements of social criticism, his 1932 work Wild Pilgrimage featuring powerful anti-lynching imagery which were shocking for the time. They still are. In a novelistic career that only lasted eight years, Ward produced six stunning novels filled with imagery one doesn’t easily forget.

While the agitprop quality of Ward’s message lacks a kind of sophistication, recognizable and easily translatable visual ideas often require precisely this kind of simplicity. The simpler the graphical representation, the broader its appeal toward universality of theme and reader identification. While Masereel went in rather frequently for the individualized burst of lightning, Ward’s books are overwhelmed with transcendent beams of light falling in dispersed patterns, the better to hit his generalized targets.

At the complete other end of the seriousness spectrum, while similarly focused upon the little man against powerful forces, gagmeister Milt Gross published He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too the year after Ward’s powerful initial work. It’s tempting to view Gross’ ink cartoonery as a slapstick response to the solemnity of Ward, as he explicitly subtitles it in such a fashion as to draw attention to its wordless nature.

Coiner (or popularizer) many Yinglishisms, Gross wrote works that relied heavily on a pun-rich series of Yiddished pronunciations of English. Jack Witt De Binn Stuck and De Night in De Front From Chreesmas are stellar examples. Dear Dollink gave to the world the common usage of that endearment.

The story runs as follows, mountain man saves young beauty from the advances of a despoiler, then is lured away to hard labor by the dream of riches to keep his lady love in style. In his absence, the mountain man’s partner pockets the gelt and convinces the young beauty that her savior has died. He then sweeps her away to the big city where he marries her, loses his fortune at a vending machine, and abandons her and her two children to the streets. Meanwhile, the heroic mountain man is on their trail. Hilarious mix-ups and mistaken identity gags abound en route to happily ever after.

Where Ward’s pages are strictly delineated with heavy borders blocking out a rectangular frame of reference, Gross’ drawings are all over the page, down in corners, stacked on top of each other, falling across the page in succession. Often we are given panoramic shots of outdoor scenery or as when the hero reaches the big city, but much of the book consists of fragments of larger sets. What the book lacks in detail, however, it more than makes up in its frenetic style. While some of the illustrations appear to have a slapdashed quality of sketch work, closer examination reveals a mastery of craft.

The nearly three hundred pages of He Done Her Wrong are crammed with gags, pictures often featuring unnecessary background material of slapstick and visual punnery. Simple movement pages depict a woman carrying two children on what appears to be a teeter-totter balanced on her head while a street fruit vendor’s cart is marked “Est. 1860.” The latter points out the simple fact that Gross’ subtitle is a bit of a fib. The novel contains both written signs (a scene in a tailor’s shop hinges on its front window sign “Just Charge It”) as well as airborne musical notes. None of which are strictly speaking, necessary, just as Gross’ side joke material isn’t.

While Ward’s work is rife with the despair all too many felt in the Depression era years, Gross’ zaniness channels an elemental drive of post-War America. It is almost as if the Jazz Age still breathed one last gust of musical bravado in Gross’ whimsy. It would be a mistake, though, to consider the work slight or even to believe (as far too many do) that amusement itself is unimportant. The world essentially does need serious sociocriticism of the kind Ward etched, yet likewise we need just as much (if not at times more so) the sheer joy of living embodied in humorists like Milt Gross. Between the two, one finds that hard times are indeed omnipresent, but so is the indominatable human spirit to laugh them away.

No comments: