More about the artists

Frans Masereel (1889-1972) was the “father” of the wordless novel. He grew up in the Belgian city of Ghent, a textile manufacturing center where he witnessed the poor living and working conditions of factory laborers. In 1909, he traveled to Germany and was inspired by German Expressionist printmakers. A pacifist, Masereel refused to serve in the Belgian army during World War I and moved to Switzerland to work as an illustrator for magazines and journals. In 1917, he produced two collections of antiwar woodcuts. The following year saw the publication of 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, the first of his more than forty woodcut novels. Though Masereel did not consider himself a political artist, his work condemned social injustice, violence, and the corrupting power of money. Hitler outlawed his books, but they were popular in communist countries, especially China, which the artist visited in 1958.

Otto Nückel (1888-1955), a German painter, illustrator, and cartoonist, produced one wordless novel, Das Schicksal: Eine Geschichte in Bildern (1926). The book was republished in the United States in 1930 as Destiny: A Story in Pictures. Relatively little is known about its creator. After fighting in the First World War, he settled in Munich, where he established a reputation as a printmaker and produced illustrations for books by well-known German authors, including Thomas Mann. In 1927, he became of a member of the Munich Secession, a group of avant-garde artists. Some of his illustrations were political satire, and the Nazis removed his work from galleries, declaring it “degenerate art.” Nückel was a pioneer of leadcut printmaking, which gave his images an austere and slightly different feel from the woodcuts of Frans Masereel.

Born in Chicago, Lynd Ward (1905-1985), pursued a career in art after realizing that his last name spelled backward is “draw.” In 1926, while studying at the Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Design in Leipzig, Germany, he discovered the wordless novels of Frans Masereel and Otto Nückel. Between 1929 and 1936, Ward published six such works of his own, making him the most prolific artist in that medium after Masereel. Though best remembered today for his wordless novels, he also provided illustrations and cover art for more than 200 books during his long career. They included children’s books written by his wife, May McNeer Ward, and works on Christianity and socialism by his father, Harry F. Ward, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and first chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Giacomo Patri (1898-1978) was born in Italy. In 1916, he emigrated to San Francisco, where his father had been living for nearly a decade. It was there that he developed an interest in commercial illustration. From 1925 to 1944, Patri worked as an illustrator for several San Francisco newspapers. During the same period, he devoted himself to social activism and the labor union movement. His single wordless novel, White Collar, published in 1940, is about the need for office workers like himself to unionize. After World War II, he taught art at the California Labor School, which closed in the early 1950s amid the communist hysteria led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. From 1949 to 1968, he ran the Patri School of Art Fundamentals, offering beginners’ art instruction for working-class men and women.

Laurence Hyde (1914-1987) emigrated with his parents from England to Canada at the age of twelve. In the 1930s, he worked as a wood engraver, producing illustrations for left-wing publications. His career as a producer for the National Film Board of Canada ended when he was forced out because of his political views. In addition to his anti-nuclear wordless novel, The Southern Cross, Hyde wrote and illustrated several children’s books in the 1950s. He returned to filmmaking in 1967 and was involved in producing The Stories of Tuktu, a popular children’s documentary series about the Inuit.

James Reid (1907-1989) was born in Philadelphia and trained as an artist under Thornton Oakley, a student of the great American book illustrator Howard Pyle. In 1930, he published The Life of Christ in Woodcuts, followed a year later by The Song of Songs, a story of erotic love from the Bible, for which he drew thirty wood engravings to accompany the written text. Following these two books, Reid devoted the remainder of his career to commercial illustration.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová (1894-1980) lived most of her life in Brno, a city in what is now the Czech Republic. In the 1920s, she studied art in Prague and Paris and later focused her career on printmaking and illustration. Her fourteen wordless novels were inspired in part by her travels and Czech history. Like James Reid, she published a woodcut life of Christ (1944), as well as several small collections of prints on religious themes.