Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life's Novel through the Eyes of Frans Masereel

Flemish artist and printmaker Frans Masereel  had a penchant for observing the eccentricities of European society as it rushed like a locomotive into the industrialized 20th century. Masereel painted, but his real contributions in art were his woodblocks. His stark, yet broken, black and white compositions loosely re-call some of  his German contemporaries like Schmidt-Rotloff or Heckel, but his densely -laden compositions are more in tune with the Italian Futurists, whose own fractured images were a product of the Industrial Age.
Masereel could truly visually and physically align his artistic stars with them as he often saw his own world  turned upside down while he and thousands of artists voluntarily criss-crossed Europe during the war. Their world was shattered, and everyone felt it internally. Artists like Masereel depicted what they saw and felt, and rarely has art mirrored so well the depth of people's fear and emotional instability. The print above reveals the fear of people being caught in the gaze of Death and the futile effort of Man to rise up and away from its clutches.
Masereel developed an art form he called 'romans en images';  comparable to today's graphic novelsHe incorporated a balance of highlight vs. shadow in his images which are fascinating to look 'through'. I say look through, because one feels a part of these images, these places. One also sees the intersecting angularity of Masereel's images as something unstable and uncertain. Our want to upright a person who is running headlong into the night  reflects the era within  which Masereel and other artists worked. No one or no thing could stop for long in his urban settings. Neither can one can feel that standing on a street corner for more than a few seconds would be enough of a reprieve from the frenetic pace of the city. There is a presence of angst, fear of being watched, confusion and desperation. 
Darkly-lit urban situations abound in Masereel's oeuvre, and there is a mixture of society's baudy side; filled with brothels, dance hall dames and fervent, fifteen minute affairs. The print above shows an young, handsome intellectual set against a chaotic speak-easy, striving for a moment's reading peace. He seems immune to the enticements of the sultry, blaring music, and immune to the 'come hither' women that look as easy as coins can fall from a pocket. It could be that the man is reading about the vision pictured above his head,but in any event, we are called to witness his actual circumstance, or this place where he's let his imagination flow. The entertainment in each scenario is exciting and begs for more.

Masereel's style of telling multi-storied tales is pleasing and reflects a brittle vibrancy rampant during the time. 
His artistic cousins, the Americans Robert Delaunay and John Marin connect to Masereel's work in similar arrangements of visual information; Delaunay through his cubist Eiffel Tower series, and John Marin, through his softly-fractured watercolor and etching series of New York. They all responded to the modern period, and the dizzying pace of the new industrial world .

Producing artwork that reflected his interests and life, especially dealing with Europe's periods of aggression - world war, Masereel was an anti-war activist, and an advocate for human rights.  In the last print, his depiction of a man's silent tenure behind prison bars is poignantly sad. He will see life pass him by and can no longer participate in the things that life has to offer - love, pleasures of the flesh, or communication with anyone on the outside. This piece is is a fitting end to how a person ages and become further disconnected from their former selves, because of age, illness, madness, confinement. It is one of Masereel's most quiet, simple prints, but it's ability to tell a story is no less powerful.  

No matter the situation, Masereel's work skillfully revealed extremes; from the masses vs. the  individual, the powerful vs. the poor, or  good vs. evil. These stories don't need words to grip our conscience. They do that very well. But Masereel's work doesn't call for a passive reading. Instead, they implore us to read them and be a part of them - the novel of life. 
Note* Masereel was a pacifist in World War I, and he worked to make his art accessible to the masses. His works were banned by the Nazis and widely distributed in Communist countries. He rejected "political" art and party affiliation, condemning all enslavements, oppression, war and violence, injustice, and the power of money.  In 1972,  Masereel was buried in the city of Ghent, and in the same year a non-profit foundation, the Franz Masereel Center, was set up in his name in Kasterlee, Belgium, as an international artist retreat and work space. 

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