FRANS MASEREELBelgian 1889 - 1972

A masterly and immensely stylish drawing in indian ink, executed in Paris in 1921 shortly before Masereel joined his friend George Grosz in Berlin. Frans Masereel was best known to his contemporaries for his highly political ‘wordless novels’, using between 25-167 captionless woodcut prints to tell a story. With their origins in German Expressionism, these extraordinary works, largely ignored by the art world since the 1940s, are credited as one of the main forerunners to today’s graphic novels.

The nonchalance of the pose of the overbearing male silhouette in the present works speaks volumes of the unfettered capitalism rife in society in the aftermath of the First World War. With his knee resting on a row of factory roofs as a nearby smoke stack belches pollution into the air, and with his left hand pressing down on a block of apartments, this particular top-hatted industrialist seems to be squeezing every last breath out of his workers.


FRANS MASEREELBelgian 1889 - 1972

Masereel had been brought up a Socialist. In his youth he joined his step-father - a doctor - in demonstrations against social injustices. Part of the Pacifist Movement during the War, he worked for the International Red Cross in Geneva, where he became a political cartoonist for the newspaper La Feuille. It was a discipline that allowed him to hone the distinctive, bold, eye catching black and white style that he would develop into such striking pen and ink drawings as the present work, and into the woodcuts that gave rise to his widely acclaimed novels without words.

On his return to Belgium after the War, Masereel illustrated the text and column headings for the magazine Lumiere, which rekindled interest in wood engraving and, in quick succession, also completed five wordless novels, including The Passionate Journey, The Passion of Man, The Idea, The Sun, and Story without Words. He also illustrated books. One of the first was for a book of fifteen poems by Emile Verhaeren published in 1917. Subsequently he illustrated the work of Thomas Mann and Emile Zola, and enjoyed the company of a wide range of artistic and literary friends, including Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Since the invention of printing in the 15th century, the woodcut had long been associated with the dissemination of ideas in pictures, especially through allegory. And like the German Expressionists of the 20th century, Masereel was attracted to the medium as a return to the primitive, and as a means of interacting more viscerally with the printing process. Equally, however, Masereel's development of such dynamic images in black and white, including his pen and ink studies, stemmed from the rise of the silent movies. The stark drama of the plates in his novels without words or the ominous intent of the burlesque silhouette of the industrialist in the present work are Charlie Chaplin-esque in both their humour and their humanity.

Using allegory to get his message across, typically Masereel depicted the social ills that grew from a rising industrial and commercial culture that ignored the basic principles of human understanding and compassion. Significantly, when Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, was asked to name the film that had made the greatest impression on him, he ducked the question and selected instead a work of fiction - Masereel's novel in pictures My Book of Hours, published in 1919.