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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The Little Red Hen: Andy Warhol’s Pre-Pop 1958 Children’s Illustration

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How to own “a Warhol” for under $5, part deux.

Several weeks ago, we uncovered some little-known children’s illustration by Andy Warhol from the 1959 anthology Best of Children’s Books #27. (A discovery made in the research process of this series on obscure children’s books by famous authors.) But it turns out the gig wasn’t a one-off for Warhol, who in the 1950s was making a living as part of Doubleday’s stable of freelance artists. The previous year, he also illustrated a story titled “The Little Red Hen” for Best of Children’s Books #15, which you can snag as a used copy with some rummaging through Amazon. The vibrant technicolor artwork, an outlier in the warm pastel color schemes of 1950s children’s illustration, offers a fascinating prequel to Warhol’s budding pop art aesthetic — one you can acquire for under $5, not a bad deal for rare, limited-edition work by one of only seven artists in the world to have ever sold a canvas for $100 million.

Catch up on Warhol’s subsequent children’s illustration with the 1959 story “Card Games Are Fun.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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Sound Is…

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Tssss chktchktchkt dubdubdub oeyyy.

The fine folks at SoundCloud have put together a beautiful meditation on what sound is and how it connects us to our environment, featuring sound experts like Imogen Heap, Moby, Radiolab producer and MacArthur “genius” Jad Abumrad, TED speaker Julian Treasure, and multimedia artist Ben Rubin.

Listening to all this random, disparate noise and sound that’s going on around us right now … when you actually tune it in and listen to it, you hear pitches that are like singing together, you hear harmonies, you hear weird textures. It’s about paying attention to the individual components more than the overall effect. The more differences you perceive, the better your life is.”

For some related fascination, see Jad Abumrad’s fantastic PopTech talk on sounds, science and mystery and these 7 fascinating books on music, emotion and the brain.

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