Writing a novel is a hard enough job on its own, but imagine if you had to cut you story into slabs of wood. That’s just what Lynd Ward did . . . well, not exactly, but almost.
What makes a Ward picture Wardian is its intuitive, partially spontaneous quality, which shines through increasingly if you scan the six novels in chronological order. At the beginning they look very much like the woodcuts they are, with all of that medium’s chiseled constraint. In time, they come to resemble lithographs. The lines grow more fluid, the shapes more volumetric. It is marvelous to see how the artist progresses from the Masereelian simplicity of Gods’ Man (1929), to the slightly more distorted, German Expressionist flavor of Madman’s Drum (1930), which is rich in grain and parallel lines, to the astonishingly lyric complexities of Wild Pilgrimage (1932), to the more lithographic look of Prelude to a Million Years (1933) and Song Without Words (1936), to Vertigo (1937), whose pictures remind me of those photogenic glass-plate drawings called clichés-verre. And so the argument might be made (wrongly, I think) that there is no one Wardian style at all. “Cutting for me must always allow a major amount of free play,” the artist once said. And again: By “seeking guidance from proofs of the unfinished block and attempting to incorporate qualities that result from the interaction between tool and material, the act of engraving takes on more of the aspect of a process of growth.”
And here’s John Lingan at The Quarterly Conversation:
One reason why Ward’s novels are so uniquely powerful and engrossing is that their plots and messages are in perfect alignment with the obvious “battle of wills” that it took to make them. Particularly from Wild Pilgrimage, his third novel, onward, you can nearly see the artist’s triceps tensing to carve the stunning cross-hatch patterns that grant his wordless panels such physical and emotional depth. You can perceive the immense, sustained concentration that it took to imagine entire narratives and a motionless means of animating them, as well as the sweat-inducing balance of physical pressure and painterly delicateness necessary to displace little spools of wood shavings in search of a precise facial expression or shoulder slump.
Ward’s efforts aren’t always transcendent—some of his sexual imagery in particular borders on camp, and was in fact cited as such by Susan Sontag—but then neither are his characters’. These are grim, shadowy tales of mythic-seeming men and women crushed by what Ward, in an essay about Vertigo, called “impersonal social forces”; these books are visceral, wrenching depictions of the Great Depression’s spiritual toll on artists, families, and workers. A Contract with God and its sequels confront similar themes, and Eisner’s brusque, protean ink lines bring the Depression—and quite a few other epochs—to invigorating life. But Ward’s work seems to howl and cry. Studying his best illustrations, you can feel the dark fingers of capitalism tightening around your throat.