October 17, 2010

BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER AND OVER AGAIN:

America's First Wordless Novelist: Why are Lynd Ward's amazing woodcut books so bleak? (Sarah Boxer, Oct. 17, 2010, Slate)

Call me crazy. Flipping through the first wordless novel published in America, Gods' Man by Lynd Ward, which came out the week of the Great Crash of 1929, I kept thinking about Moby-Dick, one of the wordiest novels ever, illustrated the next year by Rockwell Kent. Yes, Gods' Man is Moby-Dick without the text, the subtleties, or the whaling, if you can picture that—a silent moral tale of a man warring with his soul. [...]

Now that the Library of America has just republished six Ward novels, repulling them from the original woodblocks and packaging them in a gorgeous deluxe edition, along with Ward's essays and an excellent introduction by Art Spiegelman (who met Ward in 1970), we can ask the question: Why are wordless stories, especially the ones carved in wood, so unrelievedly moralistic and bleak?

The moralism, if you think about it, is almost comically overdetermined by the medium—part and parcel of working wood with gouges. Most woodcuts are printed with black ink on white paper, and therefore the woodworking artist must think in black-and-white terms.


Which is why--besides the King James text--Barry Moser's Penny Caxton Bible is so wonderful.

MORE:
-ESSAY: BLOOD & STONE: VIOLENCE IN THE BIBLE & THE EYE OF THE ILLUSTRATOR (Barry Moser, CrossCurrents)
-A TERRIBLE BEAUTY: MOSER'S BIBLE (Catherine Madsen, CrossCurrents)

Within two weeks of the book's release last October -- about the time it took for the first printing of fifty thousand to sell out -- it became clear that this was a work of art of genuine importance: an unmistakably serious work which nevertheless had a wide appeal, and which bridged the usual gaps of sympathy between Christians and Jews, black and white, popular culture and high culture, right-wing and liberal Christians. No artist since Rembrandt has handled biblical subjects with such intimate confidence and such trust in the unbeautified human face; no illustrated Bible has so rooted itself in the modern sensibility.

Moser is the foremost American master of wood engraving -- a close and arduous process that uses the end grain of the wood as the printing surface -- and the first artist since Doré in 1865 to illustrate the entire Christian Bible. Even Doré did not undertake to illustrate every book, whereas Moser has produced over two hundred and thirty images and provided each book with at least one illustration. The sheer scope of the work is difficult to absorb; one keeps turning the pages and discovering new images, as if they multiplied on the sly while the book was shut. The work is as finely detailed, and as wonderfully inventive, as the illustrations of the Alice books, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, and Moby Dick on which Moser made his reputation, but carries far greater emotional authority and moral weight. All the magnificent earlier work now appears as simply the technical apprenticeship for the emotional and moral ordeal of confronting the Bible. ("Life is more important than art, that's why art is so important," James Baldwin once said.)

The circumstances of the book's production are instructive. The project was underwritten by Bruce Kovner, chairman of the Caxton Corporation (an investment management company) and collector of Moser's and other fine bookmakers' work, who upon first meeting Moser several years ago asked, "What have you always wanted to do that you haven't done yet?" His patronage during the four years it took to do the illustrations -- one year of reading and three of twelve-hour days in the studio -- let Moser fulfill a desire of thirty years' standing. As the best patronage does, it also opened a crack in the world through which something that had not existed could escape the high pressure of oblivion on the other side and pour itself into existence.


-INTERVIEW: "The Object Is That Bloody Book":: A Conversation with Barry Moser (Anna Olswanger, 1999, Underdown)
-REVIEW: of The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible Illustrated by Barry Moser (Roger Bishop, BookPage)
Moser emphasizes that The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is "first and foremost a reading Bible. A Bible to be enjoyed as a book as well as a sacred text." The King James Version of the Bible is used, following Frederick Scrivener's 1873 critical edition of the Cambridge Paragraph Bible. In that edition, verse numbers were eliminated as well as much of the italic which had come to be used to indicate words not in the original languages. The design and type, composition and editing, and paper and binding have all been chosen and executed with the utmost care and expertise. The engraving medium, called Resingrave, has just recently been invented, and its results are virtually indistinguishable from wood engraving. The relief engravings, as Moser refers to them, are printed directly from the blocks.

Moser's hope is that "his pictures might draw an entirely new audience [to the Bible], an audience that might not be particularly religious. Or perhaps a religious audience who might have grown tired of the piety and indexterity that is so ubiquitous in 'Bible pictures' . . . My intention is to strip away the layers of pious heavenmindedness that have been applied by centuries of devout limners and expose the flawed, human veneers underneath."

And, indeed, the engravings do seem to portray ordinary human beings either caught up in, or at the center of, extraordinary events. The individuals are not larger than life; they are life itself. They are at turns haunting, disturbing, and tragic, but they are consistently compelling and thought-provoking.


-PROFILE: Mr Moser Climbs His Everest (Doug Kessler, Fine Press Book Association)
One could walk the entire history of fine printing on the spines of great Bibles. Bibles have been the crowning achievements of many of the world’s greatest typographers and printers, from Gutenberg to Baskerville, to the Doves and Oxford Lectern Bibles of this century. Add those who have tackled the Bible in part, such as Gill’s Four Gospels, and the importance of this single text to the entire history of printing becomes evident. Today, the Bible is still the typographer’s, illustrator’s and printer’s Everest — for the stature of its past interpreters and for the size, scope and scale of the text itself.

The world is about to see the result of the most recent ascent of this typographic mountain: Barry Moser’s Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, to be published later this year in a folio edition of 450. This will be the only significant Bible of the twentieth century to be entirely illustrated by a single artist.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2010 9:28 AM
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