Frans Masereel, a Belgian-born artist who lived most of his life in France, published The City in 1925.
It is a collection of 100 woodcuts that tell a story, and it is subtitled it A Vision in Woodcuts. Over the course of half a century, he published many such works, often called novels-in-woodcuts.
There was something of a subgenre of such works in that era. In the United States, between 1929 and 1938, Lynd Ward, influenced by Masereel, published seven such novels-in-woodcuts.
Today, The City is marketed as a graphic novel although, unlike most modern graphic novels, Maereel’s books are completely without words.
Dark, sullen and pessimistic
The City is called a “vision” because it doesn’t tell the story of particular identifiable characters moving through a plot.
Instead, The City is more like a poem that describes great social forces and the individuals who, in the face of intense pressure, are winners or, much more often, losers.
It is a grim vision, Germanic in its absoluteness (perhaps not surprising since Masereel lived for a time in Berlin), an indictment of the then-modern world, very dark and sullen and pessimistic — and it’s a vision that was created before the Great Depression.
Smokiness and crowdedness
The first woodcut makes a statement that is repeated in the vast majority of the other 99 images. It shows a man alone, sitting on a verdant hill of flowers and trees, looking across a great distance at a city that is intensely crowded, buildings cheek to jowl to temple, all with tall thin stacks vomiting smoke into the air.
The smokiness of the city is delineated in many of the early woodcuts, but the crowdedness is something that, in one way or another, is repeated and repeated and repeated through the book.
The crowdedness of the buildings is paralleled by the crowdedness of traffic clotting the streets and people clogging the sidewalks. At work, people are regimented in crowded rooms, relegated to tight spaces.
After the initial woodcut, the next individual to be seen is dead.
The body of a man is flat on the pavement, his bowler nearby, a car a few feet from his head and a crowd of men and women gawking.
Not one of those gawkers is stepping forward to help the man. Perhaps he is so evidently dead that they see no need. Not for them, though, the idea of averting one’s eyes. This is something akin to a brutal entertainment. There is safety — or, at least, anonymity — in their crowd. His individuality is in death.
The message here is that it is dangerous to live in the city. A message proclaimed in scene after scene in Masereel’s book.
A yeller, a dictator, a groper
Most individuals in the book are victims of the city, but not all. There are Mr. Bigs who stride through the city, giving orders, lavishing themselves with the good life and taking what they want.
The first Mr. Big, followed by an entourage, is standing in a room of female typists, He is either yelling at one of the women or simply dictating. He is a yeller. Or a dictator.
Later images of various Mr. Bigs include one pondering a decision while everyone in the office leans forward to hear his answer, another who seems uncomfortable as his daughter shows off her wedding dress and a third who is groping the maid in her upstairs cubbyhole room.
The world of Mr. Bigs
Several other woodcuts show a Mr. Big getting his sexual pleasure from women who are there to serve him, such as the mistress or prostitute, nude to the waist, staring off into space as he manhandles her on a bed, and the four whores and their madam who stand before him awaiting his selection for the evening.
In The City, the world belongs to the Mr. Bigs.
Other individuals, though, are victimized by the city, such as the manhandled mistress.
Three of the 100 woodcuts depict a widow, alone in the midst of a crowd, the most poignant image being the funeral procession for a Mr. Big with rows and rows of spectators and the figure of the widow walking forlornly behind the casket.
In the detail of another, the cemetery is jammed with people as a Mr. Big stands at the gravesite of another Mr. Big, the focus of all attention, while the widow weeps alone off to the side.
When Masereel shows other individuals, they are isolated and apart. Indeed, in a series of six pages, he presents a prisoner in his cell, a writer almost weighed down by the books in his cramped room, a sick woman in the bed in a ramshackle room, an astronomer seemingly at the mercy of his maps and equipment and a man alone in a packed courtroom before his judges.
Two of the individuals in the woodcuts are suicides — one, a woman (apparently a streetwalker to judge from her stockings) drowned the river, and the other, a man who has hung himself in a well-furnished room.
The city is oppressive to anyone alone, such as the three women sitting at the same bar table, but isolated from each other, lost in private thoughts, or the man who has been arrested by the police and is being pushed along as ranks of wide-eyed men and women watch.
The weight of a family
Except in two woodcuts, families don’t exist in The City.
In one of those woodcuts, a father, mother and three children are a tight unit, eating a meal together in a well-kept if rough-edged apartment.
In the other, just a few pages later, however, the family is in a park, and the father appears twisted in worry.
A walking couple
A dozen or more images show men and women pairing off into couples, but some of these show a prostitute and a Mr. Big.
There is what may be a minor subplot in the book that begins with the image of a couple hugging each other as they walk down a night street past a lone workman. A few pages later, what appears to be this same couple is walking down a staircase past a lone, seemingly distressed woman.
Finally, in the concluding chapter of the story, the man appears to be killing and sexually molesting the woman on the bank of the river.
The message here is underlined in other woodcuts, including one in which a well-dressed man is strangling a nude woman next to her bed. Sex and nudity are for sale and for entertainment in Masereel’s city to those who can pay.
Even a woodcut depicting a nude woman in her bed kissing a well-dressed man is saying that she is there to serve him. Her body is his to do with as he wills.
An image of hope?
The City is thoroughly depressing and beautifully rendered by Masereel.
Amid its deep angst and terrible despair, there is one image of hope. And, yet, can you really call it hopeful?
It shows a well-dressed man and a well-dressed woman seeming to dance and cuddle together in deep, soul-satisfying tranquility.
Alas, they are seen in a cloud over the dark, crowded, desperate city, as if this image is the hope that is in the minds of those who live in the city — a hope that, from all other evidence in The City, can never be obtained.
Patrick T. Reardon