Art Spiegelman is the rejuvenator of many comic art forms and the originator of more. Maus earned him a Pulitzer Prize, but this masterpiece is just the tip of a monument built on three centuries of comics history. The wordless novel is of special historical interest to him. He’s written about Otto Nuckel, Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, and now he is champion of Si Lewen, whose wordless narrative The Parade (newly reprinted by Abrams) is a forgotten treasure of socially committed art. Spiegelman became friends with Lewen during the last years of the artist’s long life (culminating with Lewen’s passing 10 days after seeing the final copy of Parade). Spiegelman edited and wrote an introduction for the accordion-folded book’s new edition. He also produced two original prints, combining Lewen’s art with his own.
The book is an epic of anti-war, anti-authoritarian ideas first published in 1957 on the tail end of Joseph McCarthy’s red scare, blacklisting rape of democracy. The drawing style combines the polemical aesthetic of Weimar German graphic commentary with a children’s book sensibility. Dark and foreboding, it speaks to the manipulation of the masses and mob. It addresses mobilization as manipulation. Yet it is also beautifully abstract with a Modern underpinning. I asked Spiegelman to talk about his relationship to Lewen and his work, and how this timeless document came to be so timely at this point in history.
How did you learn about, and then meet, Si Lewen?
I was researching a project called Wordless! first performed at The Sydney Opera House in 2013 to talk about my obsession with woodcut novels—the silent picture stories that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, those “graphic novels before graphic novels.”
I thought I knew all of the examples of this rather small and obscure though significant genre but then stumbled onto a reference to Si Lewen’s Parade—a wordless novel even more obscure than the others. It blew me away, a book in many ways more emotionally powerful than any of the others made shortly after WWII, very supply drawn, informed by Modernism. It took full advantage of the universality of pictures to make what I called in the intro to the new edition “a powerfully moving free-jazz dirge of a book that depicts mankind’s recurring war fever.”
I found a website devoted to Si’s work (it’s vast, dat internet. Vast!) and through it tried to get in touch with the artist’s estate to get permission to include it in Wordless! … and found out he was still alive, a Polish Jew born around Armistice Day 1918, and living in a retirement community in Pennsylvania.
Before I knew it I was chatting amiably on the phone with a very intelligent, eccentric, animated and amusing 94-year-old artist with a thick German accent, who was still painting every day. He knew some of my work and said I could use The Parade as long as I didn’t pay him anything for it. “Art is not a commodity! It’s priceless,” he told me. In the spring of 2013, Phillip Johnston (my musical collaborator on Wordless!) and I drove down to meet him, and he soon became my oldest friend.
Parade is not just his odyssey but has ramifications today. What was Lewen’s impetus to make this work?
Si brushed up against the 20th century’s violence and was marked by it pretty directly. He grew up in and around Berlin since his parents fled there after his mother’s family home in Lublin was burned to the ground by Polish anti-semites … so Si grew up bullied by the German brand of anti-semites.
A frail, withdrawn kid, he took refuge in drawing and painting and loved going frequently to Berlin’s art museums with his parents, who were part of the intelligentsia. Si fled Germany for France when he was 15—right after Hitler came to power. His parents stayed in Germany thinking it would all blow over, but by a remarkable chain of events too complex to tell here, the entire family got visas to resettle in New York in 1935. But in 1936, Si was clubbed almost to death by an anti-semitic policeman in Central Park.
When America entered the war, Si, though a pacifist, enlisted and became part of a native-German speaking secret army unit used for translation, espionage and propaganda purposes, called the Ritchie Boys (he’s prominently featured in a 2004 documentary about them). He was on the front at Normandy Beach and saw battle throughout France and Germany.
It was on the battlefield that he first conceived and began planning The Parade. He was one of the first soldiers to enter Buchenwald in 1945. He collapsed there, was sent home, and after convalescing for six months from his physical and mental wounds, began working on what became The Parade. He’d been inspired by one of Frans Masereel’s woodcut books that he’d been given as a 13th birthday gift. It resonated with how he felt as a toddler taken to the art museums with his parents, when he told them he wanted all the paintings to be closer to each other so they could talk to each other when he wasn’t there to talk to them. (By the way, that insight led to us making the new book a two-sided accordion-fold book with his “backstory” on the back and pictures butted up to talk to each other.)
The book rings with conviction, clarity, warmth, horror and skill. The theme of how people’s bloodlust is stirred up by seductive parades and propaganda and the carnage that follows seems especially relevant now. In fact, when Albert Einstein saw some drawings from The Parade in a New York Gallery in 1951, he wrote Si a very enthusiastic fan letter that ended by saying “Our times need you and your work.” It doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s still true in 2016.
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