cambridge book review

The Idea and Story Without Words

By Frans Masereel
Shambhala Press 2000

Reviewed by Chris Lanier

[cbr 6 / fall 2001]

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 to hand.

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 the Nazis).

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.”

Illustration from “Story Without Words”

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.

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 stargazing.

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 metaphor.

From “The Idea” (1 of 3)

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.

From “The Idea” (2 of 3)

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 Internet.”

From “The Idea” (3 of 3)

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.


Chris Lanier ( is a writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco. His latest graphic novel, Combustion, was published in 1999 by Fantagraphics Books. He currently writes and animates a weekly cartoon on the internet, Romanov, which can be found at

March 19, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration | , , , , | Leave a comment