The intricate wood cut art works of the Belgian graphic artist Frans Masereel are among the few items I’d rush back into my burning house to rescue, honest, guv. It was the ace Liverpool poet (and artist himself) Adrian Henri that first introduced Masereel’s ‘stories without words’ to me in his gorgeous praise poem sequence of rhyming couplets written in response to each of the dramatic, stark black and white, thoroughly stunning, images that were first published in his Story Without Words, published in 1924. The first book of his that I actually saw was My Book of Hours, also known as, Passionate Journey (first published in 1919) which has to be seen to be thoroughly enjoyed and marvelled at with goggle eyes. Anyway, in a mad, possibly misguided effort to tell, not show something about this remarkable and prolific visual artist, the first thing to know about him is that his sequence of black and white prints often tell a very much alive, action packed, kinetic and furiously animated visual story of an (every) man in and of the world as it rudely and fabulously unfolds around him.
In Passionate Journey we first find our nameless, jacket wearing, everyman arriving in the pulsating industrial city by steam train, seemingly wide eyed, enthralled and excited by what lies ahead of him. But what does his future hold and - by extension - what does yours and mine? We never know, but Frans Masereel suggests, and brilliantly shows, there could be high tree climbing, wrestling, dancing, farting in the face of authority, rage, lust, kindness, despair, cruelty, grief, fast cars, cycling and – surprise – ultimately the very grim reaper.
My first print edition of Frans Masreel’s Passionate Journey happily came from that great British paperback populariser Penguin books – an edition I subsequently bought multiple copies of to give away as Christmas presents, sorry friends and family fans of socks, chocolate and after shave...
Other wood cut panel sequences of his mercurial and magical imagery, craft and skill have included explorations of the city, the sun and the irrepressible nature and force of a (beautiful) idea. Of course I could tell you more about each of these, but they really beg to be seen, shown and beheld in all of their brilliant black and white, two dimensional, visual glory.
Surprisingly in the wonderful world of visual art history I often scan the A-Z of lush and lavish artists’ books in Waterstone’s and always find a FRANS MASEREEL shaped gap between the assortment of fat colourful volumes about either of the artists Magritte or Monet. It’s not fair! I suppose there are always plenty of collected Thelwell cartoons to reach out for, you know the one which feature plump black and white cartoon ponies (and even plumper young equestrians), there’s also no shortage of Andy Capp cartoons by Reg Smythe and lovingly collected anthologies of Scotland’s first family, The Broons. Snoopy and the recalcitrant wedding and work shy character Wack – from The Sun newspaper are also available in all good, and not so good, book store Christmas gift sections.
I know all of this and realise too that I was also geographically (at least) linked with a giant among modern graphic novelists, Mr Alan Moore, yes him of Watchmen fame and all kinds of other incredible adventures in the wacky comic book world of, as he says, vigilantes with their underwear worn on the outside of their trousers. Also, whisper it, although Steve Bell’s If cartoon satires and Posy Simmonds enjoyable cartoon strips are beautifully drawn I’d have to say my house would still burn to a cinder before I actually thought about dashing inside to rescue any of their collected works. It’s just not the real, Frans Masereel. Sorry.
So, farewell to all of the syndicated newspaper cartoons Snoopy, Garfield, Doonesbury, Fred Basset and the like and my hat goes off and stays off - waving in honour of Frans Masereel and his nimble, deft wood cut illustrations that have visually populated and illustrated my minds eye so graphically and with such insight and poignant, inspirational imagery, the like of which I have not seen equalled or in any way surpassed – at least, not yet. There’s still time, isn’t there? Let’s see…