Lynd Ward: The Power of Wordlessness

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The Grolier Club (47 E. 60th St., New York City) will present an overview of the remarkable achievements of one of America’s foremost book illustrators. The exhibition Lynd Ward: American Book Art: From the Collection of Robert Dance is on view from Nov. 19 through Jan. 16, and includes more than 60 artworks that illustrate the range of Ward’s graphic accomplishments. The show is accompanied by a 155-page full-color catalog by Dance that consists of an introduction to the life and artistry of Lynd Ward and a bibliography of the more than 200 books illustrated by him. One afternoon about 30 years ago, Dance was in the rare book room of The Strand, perusing titles illustrated by Rockwell Kent. The fellow working the floor showed him a book by Lynd Ward—a trade edition of Gods’ Man.

“As I quickly turned the pages of this pioneer novel in woodcuts,” he said, “I knew that I had discovered an author and illustrator to collect.”

Mark your calendars for Nov. 19, when Dance will give a Curator’s Chat at the Grolier Club at 5:30 p.m., followed by a screening of the documentary O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward at 6:30 p.m. But for the moment enjoy this conversation with Dance discussing the show.

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Wild Pilgrimage, 1932.

From your catalog for the forthcoming Grolier Club exhibit, it is vividly clear that you have amassed a significant treasure of Ward material. Indeed, most of the book jackets are unknown to me. How and why did you start collecting and learning about Lynd Ward?Collecting Ward came out of an interest in American illustrated books of the first half of the 20th century. In particular I am interested in the many types of reproductive forms book illustrators used. When I first was introduced to Ward about 30 years ago, I had been collecting aggressively books illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Seeing a good copy of the trade edition of Gods’ Man for the first time was exciting and propelled [me] forward into a new collecting category.

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Illustration from Frankenstein, 1934.

Ward is rightly touted as the master of the wordless novel (“Storyteller Without Words”). How do you feel he should be viewed in today’s graphic novel culture?I doubt I am the first to claim he needs to be considered the genre’s godfather.

Ward emerged at a time when other woodcutters and engravers (e.g., Rockwell Kent, Otto Nueckel and Fritz Eichenberg among them) were plying their craft and art. Where would you say Ward fits into this group and genre?Ward’s great inspiration was Frans Masereel, the Belgium-born expressionist working in Germany in the post-WWI era. Masereel created novels in woodcuts, which Ward would have seen when he studied in Leipzig in 1926. Books such as Die Sonne influenced him, although Masereel worked in a loose expressionist style utterly unlike the tight cutting technique Ward employed when be began carving his first book in 1928.

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Dust Jacket, 1932.

What is the organizing principle of your collection and exhibition?For my collection I would like to have a copy of every book Ward illustrated. The exhibition shows highlights, in four main categories: 1) novels in woodcuts, and other books illustrated with wood engravings; 2) dust jackets and other book illustrations; 3) children’s books; 4) fine press including Limited Editions Club for which he illustrated (I think) 13 titles over 40 years.

What would you say is your most prized piece?Early dust jackets that I know in only the single copy in my possession such as de Lavigne and Rutherford, Fox Fire (1929), or John Oliver’s Victim and Victor (1928). Also what might be a unique copy of a publisher’s proof of the limited edition of Gods’ Man, with an early form of the limitation that was later changed. By the way, it is interesting to note that unlike any of his contemporaries, including Kent, in his limited-edition books the images are made from original wood engravings, not electroplates or another reproductive process.

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Dust Jacket, 1928.

You note in your introduction that your catalog is not a comprehensive story of his life and career, but what are some of his biographical points of interest?His staunch socialist political leaning in the 1930s, and his unwavering pro-Soviet sympathies, which he shared with his father Harry F. Ward, famous radical (who someone like McCarthy called the reddest man in America!).

Also, a long and good marriage to May McNeer, children’s author with whom he worked many times.

Finally, Al Hirschfeld once told me that for using a litho crayon in the early part of his career he was suspected of being a Communist. Did Ward have any such political tension working in his media?Interesting idea … but not sure it is true. Ward was definitely on the left as were many, many artists and illustrators working in the 1930s. Do you know about the American Artists Congress, which met in NYC in the mid and late 1930s? Ward curated a famous print show: “America Today,” and published the catalog through his press, Equinox Cooperative Press. Still, I suspect there were at least a couple of middle-of-the-road artists working at that time, but can’t think of any just now, so maybe Hirschfeld was right.

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Dust Jacket, 1935.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →