Brain Pickings

Depression-Era Woodcuts by Lynd Ward, Father of the Graphic Novel

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What vintage woodcut engravings have to do with #OccupyWallStreet.

Some time ago, we marveled at the work of graphic novel pioneer Lynd Ward (1905-1985), whose stunning wordless woodcuts sparked a new dawn of visual storytelling. The genre has since expanded across everything from Hollywood to serious nonfiction — cue in these 10 masterpieces of graphic nonfiction or the recent Richard Feynman graphic biography. From the Library of America comes a fantastic celebration of Ward’s legacy: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts collects the artist’s most seminal work in a treasure trove of woodcut goodness created between 1929 and 1937, incredibly costly and near-impossible to find prior to the publication of this volume.

More than mere eye candy — which the stark, bold, intensely detailed wood engravings certainly are — Ward’s work is also a thoughtful meditation on both the nature of art and the nature of society before and during the Great Depression, exploring a number of social and labor issues that have found a Renaissance in today’s #OccupyWallStreet movement and the general socioeconomic tensions of our time.

An introduction from the one and only Art Spiegelman adds an appropriate dose of entertaining snark and perceptive cultural commentary.

[Ward] is one of only a handful of artists anywhere who ever made a ‘graphic novel’ until the day before yesterday.” ~ Art Spiegelman

The Library of America has an excellent interview with Spiegelman (PDF):

All novels require some mental adjustment in order to understand a writer’s meaning. But yes, in Ward’s books you have something that has its own operating system. This requires slowing down to understand it. Come at it from one angle and you’re looking at a bunch of incoherent, unconnected pictures. From another angle you see a very tightly woven narrative that rewards contemplation and a revisiting of how it’s told as well as what’s being told. Each of his books teaches itself.”

At the end of each wordless story you’ll find the artist’s comments about his creative process and inspiration for the story, which adds another layer of fascination as you compare and contrast those with your own visceral interpretation of the narrative.

In keeping with this revived interest in Ward’s work, independent filmmakers 217 Films are currently working on a documentary about the artist, titled O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward and scheduled to release in December.

Wordless yet speaking volumes about art and social justice, Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts is a beautiful and layered piece of cultural history, the kind of work you return to again and again only to find new dimensions each time.

Images courtesy of the Library of America

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