Written Words on Wordless Ward

I remember when I spoke with Lynd Ward’s two daughters that both Nanda and Robin told me that they constantly asked their father what his wordless books meant and Lynd always replied with the same answer: "It means exactly what you think it means." And that is really the attraction of these books -- we bring so much of our own personal experiences to reading pictures because the language of pictures has, what I like to call, a "private declension" that only each of us can understand -- a secret smirk or a haunting remembrance from our private association to an image.
--David A. Beronä
The release of The Library of America's gorgeous two-volume collection of Lynd Ward's wordless novels has led to some fascinating and thoughtful reviews. I just noticed that Scott Esposito did a quick roundup, and so I thought I'd add to what he'd collected, since I find Ward's work endlessly fascinating.

William T. Vollmann, Bookforum:
What makes a Ward picture Wardian is its intuitive, partially spontaneous quality, which shines through increasingly if you scan the six novels in chronological order. At the beginning they look very much like the woodcuts they are, with all of that medium's chiseled constraint. In time, they come to resemble lithographs. The lines grow more fluid, the shapes more volumetric.

John Lingan, The Quarterly Conversation:
One reason why Ward’s novels are so uniquely powerful and engrossing is that their plots and messages are in perfect alignment with the obvious “battle of wills” that it took to make them. Particularly from Wild Pilgrimage, his third novel, onward, you can nearly see the artist’s triceps tensing to carve the stunning cross-hatch patterns that grant his wordless panels such physical and emotional depth. You can perceive the immense, sustained concentration that it took to imagine entire narratives and a motionless means of animating them, as well as the sweat-inducing balance of physical pressure and painterly delicateness necessary to displace little spools of wood shavings in search of a precise facial expression or shoulder slump.

Steven Heller, The New York Times:
I was a young art director for the Op-Ed page of this newspaper when I first read “Gods’ Man” and “Wild Pilgrimage.” In addition to commissioning illustrations, I sometimes used existing artwork by the likes of Francisco de Goya, Thomas Nast, George Grosz and other strong black-and-white conceptualists. Ward joined their ranks. Every image he made had its own integrity. On at least three occasions I took an engraving from the books and paired it with an Op-Ed article — a perfect marriage of text and image. But this was heresy. Ward’s images were designed to be seen in their original contexts, not forced to illuminate arguments that Ward never heard. For the experience of seeing all his wordless books as they were meant to be read, the Library of America set is essential.

Glen Weldon, NPR:
Ward's metaphors are simple, even stark, and he eagerly and unself-consciously commits to them; his most striking images possess an expansive — and occasionally swoony — operatic vigor. Which is why these novels attain the primal, Manichaean impact they do. Collectively, they exist on the line separating the dramatic from the melodramatic, sentiment from sentimentality.

In his introduction to the books, Art Spiegelman comments on the difficulty of interpreting Ward’s "silent" novels. "Rarely was silent film—a direct catalyst for the wordless block—ever as resolutely mute as the woodcut novel; intertitles and musical accompaniment helped transmit its meanings," he writes. But Ward also had a genius for carving human movement, and watching his characters walk through their story lines is a particular joy of his novels. In "Prelude to a Million Years," an artist wanders through the city before his studio burns down (with him inside); in "Wild Pilgrimage," a worker lives a dream sequence in a series of red-and-white prints.

Sarah Boxer, Slate:
Ward's simultaneous love of books and distrust of language is, I think, what makes him historically important. He's the crucial missing link between the graphic novelists of today, Spiegelman included, and the narrative artists of the past, going back to Frans Masereel, Albrecht Dürer, and the muralists who painted Bible stories on church walls in case people couldn't read. 
There's also a long and fascinating piece on Ward in the latest issue of Harper's, but the online version is currently ensconced behind the paywall, available only to subscribers.

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