Clash of ideologies

Image from Lynd Ward, Song Without Words

Lynd Ward, Song Without Words

The years between the First and Second World War were marked by intense conflict among four political and economic ideologies: capitalism, socialism, communism, and fascism. Wordless novelists, in general, favored socialism and directed their anger first and foremost at the fascist dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, whose forceful style of communication stands in stark contrast to the silent “language” of artists like Lynd Ward, Frans Masereel, and Giacomo Patri.

Easily the most powerful condemnation of fascism is Ward’s Song Without Words (1936). Its twenty-one images lead us through a woman’s agonizing but courageous decision to bring a child into the world at a time of such extreme fear and brutality. The viewer shares in her nightmarish visions of children being starved, imprisoned, and taken from their mothers to be trained up for war. An image of a baby on a bayonet is almost too difficult to look at but sadly true to life. Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, who lost much of his family at the hands of the Nazis, describes another of Ward’s illustrations as “one of the most intense and heartfelt anti-war images of the century.” In it, the woman stands defiant against a giant skull with grimacing, gravestone teeth. Peering from the skull’s eye sockets are a fascist henchman and a top-hatted figure who may represent a capitalist war profiteer. The story closes on a semi-hopeful note with the woman, her mate, and their newborn child looking with uncertainty toward a city in the distance.

Ward’s sixth and final novel in woodcuts, Vertigo, was published in 1937 during the Great Depression. Most consider it his masterpiece. Containing 230 wood engravings, it is divided into three sections. The middle section, “An Elderly Gentleman,” traces a year in the life of a wealthy American capitalist. The first sequence of images shows him shopping for religious art and going to church. He is no fan of the Social Gospel, however, and when profits fall, he cuts his workers’ wages and lays some of them off. Scabs are brought in to break up a strike. The old man’s health is in decline, and at one point a blood transfusion is needed to save his life. In November, improving profits boost his strength, though at year end, he is still bedridden. The third part of the story follows a young man in his desperate search for work. Unable to earn enough to live on, he sells his blood to the Elderly Gentleman. Capitalism is literally bleeding workers dry.

Giacomo Patri, an Italian American artist who illustrated a number of communist publications, offers a different critique of capitalism in his one and only wordless novel, White Collar (1940). The semi-autobiographical story argues that office workers, including commercial artists like Patri, needed to follow blue-collar workers’ lead and unionize. Set between 1929, the year of the Great Crash on Wall Street, and 1933, the beginning of the New Deal, the 120 linocuts—an affordable and accessible medium for both artist and buyer—follow an illustrator and his middle-class family in their decline into poverty.