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Lynd Ward : Six Novels in Woodcuts

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Lynd Ward is the author of six novels in woodcuts[1] published in the United States between 1929 and 1937[2]. Between the vast hope nurtured by potential revolutionaries and the profound angst that goes with the first totalitarian ambitions, the core of the artwork is filled with a combination of powerful and contrary affects. As rich, passionate and excessive as Ward’s books are, they cannot be reduced to the status of proto-graphic novel which the novel in woodcuts is sometimes afflicted with when it takes on an early and accomplished form. We will avoid approaching those works as outdated curiosities, reminders of an age whose tensions would have by now gracefully vanished as if by some democratic magic. Instead, Ward’s work echoes with an essential timelessness ; today as much as yesterday, those comic pages are deeply moving because they capture the world and the wills it is shaped by, and impress by the ways they manage to do so.

Gods’ Man (1929)

Ambitious but featuring established motives that the author struggles to transcend, Ward’s first narrative remains his most conventional work, despite its true qualities. The 139 wood engravings that compose Gods’ Man are the result of application mixed with apprehension that sometimes curbs the enthusiasm of the first work : a meticulous exploration of the narrative possibilities offered by the novel in woodcuts (which Ward had discovered two years earlier reading Frans Masereel’s((Frans Masereel is seen as the pioneer of the novel in woodcuts with Die Passion eines Menschen, published in Germany in 1918.)) Die Sonne), cautious first attempts to test its limits, the diligent discovery of an open (thematic, graphic, symbolic) space which Ward will deepen in his following books.

In this sense, the sequence that follows, through a series of portrait of working artists, the journey of a Brush through the centuries is illuminating ; the Brush is described, in that succession, as a personal, intimate but also collective tool, the moment always as a moment in History. With Gods’ Man, Ward shows his intention to follow a historical, human and temporal path – the novel in woodcuts, albeit a recent innovation, uses a thousand-year-old technique – before thinking about extending it rather than breaking free from it. The link between the wood engravings that establish and constrain the narration would then refer to an array of broader relationships, between beings, techniques/customs, periods, to History considered as the essential condition for a critical relationship to the world, a full conscience, an être-là.

Ward’s first work, more than an accomplished success, vouches for this inclusion within a process and within the simultaneous development of an intensity point from where, here and now, everything remains possible : eventually Gods’ Man turns out to be a great book, since it is a necessary and generative book, an ideal opening.

Madman’s Drum (1930)

A wary sailor is studying the virgin land on which he has just set foot… This is the beginning of Madman’s Drum, a 118 woodcuts series and Ward’s first masterpiece. Madman’s Drum is a complex narrative, extended on several decades, and which structure constantly threatens to crumble under the weight of immense aspirations, as Ward uses numerous graphic and narrative innovations. Madman’s Drum, with its African drum reduced to a mere decorative function that silences it, its cursed family whose astonished mother and daughter waste away in turn, and its tragic procession of desires restrained and shattered by an order as cruel as ruthless, is an unrealistic and magnificent work.

The eponymous madman in Madman’s Drum is a multiple figure, unravelled through the narrative (and of which the following list wouldn’t hope to provide an exhaustive collection of its occurrences) : he is the Nigger, and stands for the Otherness rejected with the strike of a sword, slavery or commerce ; he is the twin portrait of the Nigger, the ghost image, laughing and threatening, that adorns the silent drum, symbolizing the prohibited affects ; he is the old Patriarch, both originator and heir of a line of aborted disjunctions, who walks away, on his last days, with the drum tucked under his arm (the last three engravings describe, echoing Nietzsche, “how the spirit becomes a camel, how the camel becomes a lion and how, finally, the lion becomes a child”) ; he is the Flutist, the western avatar of the Nigger with a drum, an evocation of the Piper of Hamelin, a fugitive and tempting Eros-Thanatos wandering through the outskirts of the city, a mysterious dual character (himself duplicated from a character). And the madman with a drum is also the man that the book brings up in Lynd Ward himself : the engraver-storyteller that multiplies tools, techniques, inventions and intentions. Instituting an impassioned and virtuous circle, the secret desire that regulates the pages of Madman’s Drum is fueled by the artistic and political demands those pages foster in their author.

And, although Madman’s Drum knows the deviation and the wandering of a crazed machine, the energy boiling at the heart of the book constantly threatens to overwhelm Ward, wearing out his ability to organise a narrative, tirelessly driving his hand to experiment every possibility the wood offers, up to the limits of his know-how. Madman’s Drum, exploring the dangerous path of an individual and collective dis-alienation, brilliantly frees itself from the reservation inherent to Gods’ Man to triumph at every fault, to succeed in each failure.

Wild Pilgrimage (1932)

Nothing had prepared us for Wild Pilgrimage, but everything led to it : bulging trees, carnal barks, tense fits, round butts fitted into tight uniforms, erect tools, factory chimneys squirting high up into the sky, carrot bunches, mass strangulations, black sun orifices, fumes that sway and sweat and drain away, fence jumps, intent looks ; up to the sexual and political fantasies, feverish impulses reproduced in red ink – a unique use of colour in Ward’s works. Libidinal maximal charge, which should be described as pan-erotic since, in those 108 feverish wood pieces, everything gets excited, rubbed, tensed up, rounded, stretched and arched, regardless of which places, social class, or acts were depicted.

The wood Ward carves seems not to resist him anymore : the inflamed sensuality at the heart of that Wild Pilgrimage is also, then, the carnal relation that is growing between Ward’s hands and the material they are working, the thousand subtleties and the precious elegance that Ward discovers in his material, what they stir in the readers’ eyes. And this sensuality is also a political issue, since Ward depicts here the revolutionary drive of desire, without ever curbing it. Desire, as the fundamental state of reality, the first intensity that covers and unites each of its elements, from the most insignificant object to the competing subjects – beyond their oppositions, their faults, their virtues –, and which least quality, once revealed, is to protect us from despair. Desire, as a potential for rebellion, the human and social embodiment of a basic power that precedes every order and refutes every determination.

Depicting a nightmarish universe (since despite the attractive roundedness of the butts, cops still clobber), Ward, in the same move, also lays bare its essential utopian bow. A thousand miles away from the conventional work of Gods’ Man, a few leagues from the fruitful fickleness in Madman’s Drum, everything escapes Ward into his hallucinated books – where the mastery over an artform can eventually aim at plans for fracture and consecrate a superior abandon.

Prelude to a Million Years (1933)

Ward’s fourth work revisits the deleterious city of Gods’ Man, as a necessary return but executed in a new disposition – at a higher level. The book is short, replete with urgency, and the 30 wood engravings all function as abrasive flashes. Hateful partners, blind delinquency, bludgeoned proletarians, act of submission to the national flag, heads forced to bow, women reduced to mere nothings, an infernal flash-quick visit to the worst of the worlds, ours, until the dead-tired protagonist disappears in flames, slumped over his unfinished ideal of stone – Prelude to a Million Years reminds us with a straight howl that the Empire never ended, that it is always in its eternal state of recreation.

And still, the same dazzling curves, archways and ramps, grazed breasts of stone, vibrating plants, adjusted buttocks, resisting to all injunctions, haunt this dark world as fragile appearances of the desire. Book after book, Ward builds his own path, in a more and more singular way. His engravings get richer, material effects multiply, frames disappear, compositions get more complex ; some emphasis is present, for certain, but the emphasis is here one of madness, the one that breaks free, that has nothing to do with pose, that ventures to the limits and reaps as much as possible. As a wringer of affects, as an exuberant inventory of perceptive illuminations, Ward’s desiring eye carves the world into contrasted surges, fearing the worst, validating the reunion of it’s the conditions for its happenstance, persistently longing for the best.

Prelude to a Million Years also marks a new step in Ward’s work. This one should not be mistaken for a withdrawal to a previous form, it is a profound transformation : the sensual curves (sill present in this book, but more subtle already) are turned into breaks, straight lines and hooks, bunches of needles and bayonet blades. The vital forces discovered in the excess of Madman’s Drum, and which infused every page in Wild Pilgrimage, progressively wane as the hard-hitting policemen lose the little breath that was still left under their uniforms. Ward’s work starts then to narrate, with the cold accuracy of a measuring device, the progress of an irremediable disenchantment, the slowing down of an essential pulse.

Song Without Words (1936)

Stone cubes, black rectangles, juxtapositions of opaque windows on monolithic facades : the city is a gloomy monument ; the pregnant woman confronts the curves of her naked body to the angular and disturbing space swarming with rats, ants and vultures, all carrion feeders.

Where Prelude to a Million Years limited the narration to a journey set against a familiar and lavish urban background, Song Without Words bares things to the bone. In this fifth book, made of 21 wood engravings, his shortest work but not his least essential, Ward lays out, as the place for this new deviation, a singular and paradoxical space by combining an expansion of the symbolic device – everything is symbolic in these visions of the worst – with the unequivocality of the sign. Each one of the elements, drastically few in number, that compose the symbolic space, is a perfectly explicit sign, devoid of ambiguity. In these pages, the symbol becomes literal, and the Inferno visited in Song Without Words stands for that disappearance of meaning, grasped as the final reduction of possibles, destroyer of desire, the supreme alienation.

In the ghost town where the woman roams, there are no crowds, no individuals, no struggles anymore, just beings reduced to the status of rough signifiers (the tortured kid, the tearful mother, the murderous patriot and soldier), shackled characters, ghostly puppets sealing the mass grave of humanity. The death salesmen are piloting a giant skull with steles for teeth, and this image stops all interpretation by its immediacy. There is no communication left between straight and curved lines : metaphor for the line left to a tragically Manichaean polarity, each wood engraving registers a fatal caesura. Indetermination and complexity have deserted a world on the brink of extinction. As the last two pages of the book – the birth of a child and the family meeting away from the urban space – force a breach in that block of despair, it is hard to identify something else than a brief moment of respite, shortly preceding the resumption of the operations. The book, then, seems to end hurriedly, as if dreading to go further.

Vertigo (1937)

Song without words grasped the moment when, once the maximal development degree has been reached, some power curbs every distinction, prevents every change, and ends up as a vehicle for nothingness. With its 234 engravings, Vertigo traces back the genealogy of this collapse. The title evokes the kind of vertigo that is aroused by the reverse spiral, the dynamic model of a power in its terminal phase ; this spiral, whose centripetal force progressively draws the surrounding space back on its central core, is a motive aiming at the annihilation point of all movement.

History and movement, then. The history of the United States, as recounted by a college teacher at the beginning of Vertigo, is a history of movements : vertical (cutting down trees, building up) and horizontal (navigation, agricultural furrows, the Conquest of the West, railroads) combine to form the narrative of putting down space as a grid, and establishing control over it. Further on, if history celebrates the modern megalopolis, it is not because they represent the end of the movement but rather that they embody its perennial aspect : in an endless whirl, cars revolve around the ever-growing cities. In this history, the diagonals of axes echo those of guns, plows, masses and ribbon-bound school diplomas : they all are avatars of a same energy. Unlike the drum in Madman’s Drum, a unique instrument embodying the inherent Otherness of every subject, the multitude of tools synthesizes here the common fate of a group of individuals, the destiny of a civilization. The historical relationship becomes the history of one movement ; it establishes itself as an objective statement of a consistent path, which caracterizes the past as it defines the present and foreshadows the future.

Ward confronts three individual fates (“the young girl”, “an old gentleman” and “the young boy”) with this Epic of Progress, through three chapters each dedicated to a single character. The three narratives intertwine at several levels (narrative cross-references, graphic and thematic repetitions) and form altogether a complex set inviting, without forcing, a non-linear reading, as the book unfurls according to the reader’s progression along its pages. The prime quality of such a set is to let emerge, without reducing it, the array of relations that steers the society towards its future : the virtual path established by official history then dissolves into a present full of false promises, failed hopes and fatal acts, an addition of trivial, interrupted or deadly movements.

Far from revolutionary passion and lavish desires – the crucible of indecison praised in Wild Pilgrimages and Madman’s DrumVertigo depicts a society hit by apathy, in a present that, unwilling to perish, eventually collapses. This situation, as unnecessary as it is spontaneous, follows the impetus of a power determined to endure. Ward exposes two of the fundamental axes of the submission enterprise : 1° Each value is gradually converted into one single monetary and numerical value, a univocal overdetermination rendering rational control possible ; 2° A violent repression is charged with crushing down the ever-increasing rebellions and divergences brought about by each stage of conversion. It is important to notice how rationality and repression are irremediably entwined in this project, until they reach the point of no return envisioned in Song without words, where maximal control (lost of sense, frozen time, disciplinary space) leads to terminal violence.

The path official history used to praise as endless actually chimes out a countdown : the first chapter of the book tells six years in the young girl’s life, the second chapter twelve months in the old gentleman’s life, the third chapter a week in the young boy’s life.
Inevitably, time and space merge in these pages, up to the last wood engraving, devoted to the last weekday, Sunday. The boy and the girl, out at the fair, go on a roller-coaster ride, and Ward, as if carving with a scalpel, gives a piercing analysis and uncovers the monstrous epiphany of that dizzying activity[3]. The image freezes the instant when, having passed the climax of the parable, the car dives down : the startled eye of the young man ; the young girl in his arms, avoiding the sight of the abyss ; the wooden framework, a methodical structure, organizing the movement ; and the fall, irreversible. Deadlock movement, point of no return and dumbfounded consciousness, Vertigo tragically ends in the eye of the spiral.

Later on, Lynd Ward will essentially devote himself to illustration, and will also write numerous children’s books, among which a silent narrative in gouache (The Silver Pony – 1973). He will make two further attempts to produce a seventh novel in woodcuts (first in 1940, then from 1976 to 1978), two projects that will fail to bring fruition.


  1. The novel in woodcuts consists in a succession of silent images, without text nor accompanying captions, reproduced from carved wood pieces and set on an one-image-per-page basis (sometimes only one image every odd page, as is the case in Ward’s books original editions and in the complete edition published by The Library of America). Every piece of carved wood not only has an own, strong graphic and meaning unity ; but also is part of a broader narrative, often overtly political and hugely symbolic.
  2. i.e., Gods’ Man / Madman’s Drum / Wild Pilgrimage and Prelude to a Million Years / Song Without Words / Vertigo, published as two volumes.
  3. Hypothesis : since Ward lived in New York, we can assume that he had in mind, for this sequence, the amusement park in Coney Islandand its roller-coaster called The Cyclone. Let us remind here that a cyclone, as a meteorological phenomenon, is a huge mass of air brought up in the movement of a reverse spiral…
Chroniqué par in February 2012