Frans Masereel

A short article on the libertarian artist and illustrator Frans Masereel

“Should every¬thing per¬ish, all the books, the pho¬tographs and the doc¬u¬ments, and we were left only with the wood¬cuts Masereel has cre¬ated, through them alone we could recon¬struct our con¬tem¬po¬rary world, one would know how one lived in 1920, how we were dressed, one would understand the whole dreadful war on the front and behind it, with all its devilish machines and grotesque silhouettes, understand the stock exchanges and factories, railway stations and ships, men of all kinds and, what is more, the spirit, the moral temper of our times.” 
Ste¬fan Zweig

We featured an article on the woodcut artist Alexandre Mairet in Organise! 82. In this issue of Organise! we take a look at the artist who had a major influence on Mairet, the great artist Frans Masereel.
Frans Masereel was born in Blankenberg in Belgium on the 30th July 1889. Blankenberg is a seaside resort and Frans was born into a middle-class family. The middle class in the area spoke French among themselves and Flemish to their servants or the local peasants. He received an education at Ghent and later went to the École des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) there.

He had only been there less than a year when his teacher advised him to travel and “see the masterpieces of the world” and that he should work on his own as the Academy could add nothing more to his education. Round about the same time Masereel met the master engraver Jules de Bruycker and he was seriously influenced by him, above all in his taste for graphics and pen and ink drawings.

In 1910 Masereel travelled to Tunis. The following year he moved to Paris and falling in love ith the City of Life, decided to settle there. He was above all attracted to where crowds gathered an d loving drawing scenes of the street, the café, and along the Seine, even though he himself was a withdrawn and shy character. He became influenced by illustrated magazines which were very popular at the time, and also by medieval woodcuts which he discovered during visits to libraries. When the World War came he was not conscripted. He volunteered to work for the International Red cross, and as a result moved to Geneva in Switzerland, where he worked as a translator of Flemish.

It was in Geneva that Masereel discovered a whole group of draft-dodgers, deserters, anti-militarists and revolutionaries, artists and writers appalled and disgusted by the mass slaughter.

In these circle he met the French writer and novelist Romain Rolland who was one of the founders of the anti-militarist paper La Feuille. Attracted to these advanced ideas Masereel devoted three hours of every evening to produce a political cartoon. Masereel, together with Rolland and Pierre Jouve, writer, critic and anarchist, and Marcel Martinet, one of the pioneers of the ideas of proletarian art and culture, published a pamphlet Salut a La Revolution Russe in May 1917. Masereel then illustrated a Rolland satire Liluli and woodcuts for a film that was never to be produced Revolt of the Machines.

Masereel remained in Switzerland until 1922. Whilst most of those in the Geneva circles in which he had participated had returned to their homelands by 1920, Belgium considered Masereel as a draft-dodger because of his anti-war activities. In the end he moved to Montmarte in Paris. Here he met the German artist George Grosz who produced savage and angry works against war and capitalism. Like Masereel Grosz was fascinated and at the same time repelled by the big city. As Masereel wrote to Rolland: He too thinks that art should as far as possible be a gesture (action) and that the artist must not be indifferent to the social question”.

As his friend Stefan Zweig wrote ; “ I know nothing on earth that this impassioned friend of humanity hates more than institutions that tend to reduce the richness and abundance of life to coldness, uniformity, immobility, to enclose and stifle living matter within fixed bounds. He is the enemy of the State whe it favours coercion and injustice; he is the enemy of despotic, conservative ‘society’, and while he does not adhere to any party (he rejects them all as a fetter to inner freedom) he is on the side of the weak, the oppressed, the victims”. In some accounts of Masereel he is portrayed as an anarchist. Whilst remaining essentially libertarian he was for too long, like his friend Rolland, a fellow traveller of the Soviet state between the two world wars and his ambiguous attitude to the State should be seen in this light.

Nevertheless it is his powerful books of woodcuts, precursors of the modern graphic novel, that have remained popular with many, including anarchists. The anarchist and proponent of proletarian culture Henri Poulaille used Masereel’s works in the 1930s and just after the war in his magazines and he has deeply influenced artists of an anarchist persuasion like Clifford Harper. The first of these was The Passion of Man, published in 1918, followed by Passionate Journey and The Sun (both 1919) and Story Without Words and The Idea published in 1920. The Idea is perhaps one of his greatest works where a writer gives birth to The Idea illustrated as a tiny naked sprite. The authorities try to suppress her nakedness, the writer defends her and is put in front of a firing squad for his pains. Too late, The Idea reproduces herself on a mass basis through the printing press. On one level The Idea represent the power of political ideas whilst on another level and how they continue to exist despite repression it can be interpreted as the way in which women pose a threat when they wish to express themselves freely and are subsequently derided and their image manipulated by the media. Other woodcut novels followed including the astounding The City in 1925. Here the mass basis of the city and the loneliness that coexists alongside this are powerfully portrayed, as are political unrest, poverty, opulent riches and degradation and illness. These works were so successful that some of the editions had imprints of over 100,000.

During the Second World War Masereel took refuge in the Free Zone of France, then settling in Nice in 1949 until his death in January 1972 in Avignon. As mentioned earlier Masereel was popular in the inter-war years but since World War Two was almost forgotten until recently. His influence on American artists like Lynd Ward who then started work in a similar style, on Art Spiegelman, creator of the graphic novel Maus, on the great cartoonist Will Eisner and a host of others, as well as his great importance in the development of the graphic novel should mean that he should be re-evalued. Perhaps his openly hostile stances to war and capitalism might have something to do with this, one might question.

The above appeared in No 83 of Organise! the Anarchist Federation magazine