Ward’s legacy includes his innovative “novels without words,” books that tell their stories entirely through woodcut images. The Library of America published the six works he created between 1929 and 1937 in the two-volume boxed set Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts in 2010. Drawing on interviews with Ward’s daughter Robin Ward Savage and using more than 150 of Ward’s wood engravings, drawings, and illustrations, the documentary explores the many dimensions of Ward’s achievement: as path-breaking graphic novelist, prolific illustrator, and experimental printmaker.
One of the most remarkable segments in the film shows Ward deftly engraving into wood an image in his magnum opus Vertigo. In an exclusive interview with The Library of America Art Spiegelman discussed Ward’s choice of medium and how he became interested in wordless novels:
Spiegelman: Ward’s way of approaching the wood is appropriate to a very white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man with a great, great work ethic who loves working with his hands, loves the craft aspect as well as the expressive aspect of what he does. His pictures are a full expression of that sensibility. So it’s hard to say: did he choose wood engraving because he wanted to make a certain kind of picture, or did he make a certain kind of picture because he liked to work with his hands? Wood engraving is a careful process and an exacting one. There are many other ways to get an image across without having to get your fingers all bloody. There’s a lot that can go wrong if you chop at the wrong angle. I think his choice had to do in part with the roots of the tradition of printing, making books as objects. He cared about the history of type, the history of representing images—the history of woodcuts goes back to the origins of bookmaking as we’ve come to know it. I think that’s the core reason.
Ward first became interested in the idea of stories without words while he was studying printmaking in Germany and the works of the Belgian artist Frans Masereel were the first he discovered. What’s interesting about that group of three, Masereel, the German artist Otto Nückel, and Ward: not only did they communicate in different media, their work expressed different sensibilities. Nückel did just one experiment, Destiny, in this area of stories without words. His work is informed by a delight in light; his pictures are infused with an almost impressionist way of making the image known. Masereel’s many works are freely hewn, chunked exuberantly into the wood and have a blunt visual approach. He is very eager to distort and cascade loud layers of information into pictures. For the most part Ward’s work has a methodical quality. Even in his first book, Gods’ Man, the pictures are very consciously rooted in the early tradition of what a woodcut might look like. He uses its emblematic qualities more and more as he goes on and pursues detailed picture-making to great reward.Read the full interview with Art Spiegelman about Lynd Ward
Watch the trailer for O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward (YouTube):
Also of interest:
- Allen Ginsberg, Lynd Ward: The Moloch connection, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Glen Weldon reviews Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts on NPR