Flemish artist’s woodcuts weave wordless tales of modern life


Museum in Ostend has put Frans Masereel’s iconic woodcut prints next to their contemporary kin, showcasing the lasting influence of one of Flanders’ most influential graphic artists

Etched in wood

Mu.Zee’s newest retrospective leaves no room for doubt: Frans Masereel is one of the 20th century’s most influential graphic artists. Born in Blankenberge in 1889, Masereel spent most of his career in France, gaining fame for his wordless novels that relied on stark monochrome woodcut prints to tell their stories.

Woodcuts are made by carving a relief out of a wooden block, covering it with ink, and then pressing it onto paper, like a large rubber stamp. Masereel was one of the world’s few great woodcut artists.

But he was also an activist and utopian visionary. In Ghent, where he studied, he depicted the difficult conditions faced by the city’s textile workers. Later in life, he targeted problems associated with life in modern cities the world over.

At the retrospective in Ostend, Masereel’s most iconic pieces are shown next to works by contemporary artists who drew inspiration from his style and themes. Historical conscience, for instance, is reflected in the works of Basque-born Antwerp-based artist Philip Aguirre Otegui. His woodcut of a house containing the world (“Casa para el Mundo”, 2016) is a utopian answer to the refugee crisis.

In “Runaways” (1993), Glenn Ligon blurs the lines between history and his own identity. Borrowing from 19th-century runaway slave posters, the African American artist pairs miniature lithographs with descriptions written by his own friends. 

Another omnipresent element in Masereel’s work is the erotic. In “Le beau mec” (The Cute Guy, 1922), a smartly dressed man is worshipped by a crowd of naked women. It is the mirror image of “Le Désir” (Desire, 1921), where a naked woman is devoured by well-dressed men.

The theme plays a central role in Masereel’s graphic novel The Idea (1920), where the revolutionary thought is embodied by a naked woman who traverses the world shaking up the established social order.

The honesty of the nude is also central to “Tableau vivant”, an immense work by British-Nigerian Mary Evans that depicts dozens of silhouettes made of brown paper. At MuZee, the piece is contrasted with Masereel’s woodcut from 1937, depicting a family of three lying on a bed of flowers, with a bright, morning sun rising from the sea behind them.

The seven-metre-long “Reading Family” serves as the clearest evidence of Masereel’s untempered utopian nature. After all, is any activism possible without the dreamers?

Until 3 September, Mu.Zee, Romestraat 11, Ostend

Photo: “La Ville” by Frans Masereel (1925)
© Sabam Belgium & Frans Masereel Stiftung