Words of protest fill the checkered streets. A woman lies sick in bed; she doesn’t have access to the healthcare she requires. Wealthy men in suits profit from naked women’s bodies. Another wealthy man—a particularly large and ridiculous one—pisses on everyone around him as he stands on top of his gleaming tower. While these might sound like scenes from recent newspaper reports, I’m actually describing plates from the Flemish artist Frans Masereel’s The City (1925), a “wordless novel” of 100 captionless woodcuts that depict the many facets of early 20th century metropolitan life.
In homage to the book, London’s ICA has mounted the exhibition Frans Masereel: The City from May 6 to July 2, describing the work as an important precedent to the graphic novel. “A number of the images seem to mirror different attitudes today,” says the show’s curator Matt Williams. “My interest was in presenting this body of work, which at one point has been incredibly popular internationally, but which has never really had a foothold in the UK.”
The black-and-white woodcuts champion the struggle of working-class people in an emotionally charged, expressionistic style; the large A5 plates depict social hierarchies, the gulf between rich and poor, the objectification of women, tiresome bureaucracy, as well as fleeting moments of beauty, like two lovers dancing in the street and a black cat slinking down an alley. Masereel lived in great European cities throughout his life, including Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and his illustrations are an assortment of moments garnered from his time wandering their streets.
“Amongst the rise of right-wing populist thinking, Masereel came from a humanist and deeply pacifist point of view,” says Williams. “He resisted bourgeois values and depicted in one image what would take 1,000 words to communicate. His desire was to sharpen awareness. The images are loaded and because of the size of them, they demand the viewer to focus.”
What is perhaps most striking about the book from a historical point of view is how The City doesn’t fit into the narrative of the woodcut as a primitive and old Germanic device. The scenes of modernity Masereel depicts with the medium contradict the folkloric associations of woodcuts from the Weimar period. The tall smoke stacks, claustrophobic streets, and echoing factories of his plates seem to have fallen from the world depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
“The level of skill and technique behind these works is deeply impressive,” says Williams. “Masereel used this medium because it had a history and a mass appeal. He worked as an illustrator for daily newspapers, where speed was important, and he created abstracted woodcuts that were instantly recognizable.” A medium that was familiar, that filled newspapers and left inky stains on the thumbs of everyone everyday, made a lot of sense for a book of snapshots depicting the everyday reality of the mass of individuals in a sprawling, rapidly modernizing city.