The morality and the madness of Lynd Ward’s silent woodcuts

The morality and the madness of Lynd Ward’s silent woodcuts

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 27 June, 2015

God's Man (1929)

Artist: Lynd Ward

Dover Publications (2004)

A talented but destitute artist meets a mysterious masked stranger at an inn. The stranger pays for the artist's food and offers him fame and fortune through a magical brush/gouge/drafting tool. All the artist has to do is to sign a contract for his soul, which he eventually does.

This is a serviceable plot summary of the German legend of Faust, who makes a pact with the devil. It has inspired several legendary artists down the ages, from Marlowe to Goethe to Mann to Bulgakov. The American artist and illustrator Lynd Ward is a worthy addition to this gallery of stalwarts: he used the Faust legend as a starting point for God's Man his 1929 wordless novel in black-and-white woodcuts, now considered to be an early example of the graphic novel.

As has been noted by modern-day commentators, God's Man owes a lot to both German Expressionism and the Sturm und Drang (German for "Storm and Stress") movement; the latter exalted individual expression over rationalism. The stirring opening sequence of God's Man is quite literally "Storm and Stress": we see the Artist in a storm-tormented boat, struggling against lovingly exaggerated waves and a lightning-streaked sky, both of which seem to taunt him and his smallness. Nevertheless, the artist perseveres and forges ahead. He even manages to sketch the scene while still at sea, both literally as well as figuratively. This makes sense when you consider that Sturm und Drang can be transliterated as "Storm and Drive" or "Storm and Urge"; the "stress" part of the translated title is meant to represent an artist's instincts or urges.

In the scene where the Artist is offered a magic brush/gouge/drafting tool by the masked stranger, the offer comes with the briefest of art history lessons. According to Ward, this is a sad chronicle of gifted men and women who paid the price for their gift: a desolate life and an early grave. And so, Ward shows the magical instrument passing from genius to doomed genius, from the hands of the first nameless Egyptian master, all the way to Van Gogh; yes, dear ol' ear-chopping Vincent himself.

Predictably, the Artist becomes rich and successful in no time at all. However, he soon sees through the façade of commerce appropriating art. The manner in which Ward shows this, in a chapter called The Mistress, might be discomfiting to the modern-day reader. A beautiful woman who offers herself to the Artist is revealed to be a prostitute, via a dollar sign branded onto her right shoulder. Seen in a different way, the brand can also be seen as the Biblical serpent coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. Women are whores because the Bible said so? I don't think for a moment that Ward was being this transparent, but the scene comes across as a bit heavy-handed, gorgeous art notwithstanding.

The Artist, in due course of time, goes through a period of hallucination and professional decline, rounded off with a fall from a cliff. A kind woman rescues him, falls in love with him and bears him a son. But just when father and son seem destined for eternal sunset-sketching, the masked stranger comes to collect his dues.

God's Man had a strange relationship with commercialism, it has to be said. The pithy morality at the story's heart takes an ironic twist when you consider that it is still America's bestselling wordless novel. It sold 20,000 copies in its first four years, despite being released just a week before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which set into motion the Great Depression. Perhaps Ward had underestimated the corrupted American soul after all. It's easy to understand where he was coming from: Ward's father Harry F. Ward was a Methodist preacher who later became the first chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. Injustice and the lone wolf's struggle against an oppressive society would become recurring themes in Ward's work.

In The Library of America's box set edition of Ward's wordless novels, Art Spiegelman wrote an introductory essay on the artist's life and work. He wrote: "It seems natural now to think of Lynd Ward as one of America's most distinguished and accomplished graphic novelists. (...) To make a wood engraving is to insist on the gravitas of an image. Every line is fought for, patiently, sometimes bloodily. It slows the viewer down. Knowing that the work is deeply inscribed gives an image weight and depth."

Lynd Ward fought for every line which you see inscribed in God's Man. Sometimes, fighting the good fight is enough, and this remarkable book is proof of that.

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