Olivier Van den Bossche Frans Masereel (1889-1972): Idealism in the Art of an Eyewitness to History

Hartung-Bergman Foundation Seminar, June 2011
Olivier Van den Bossche is a master’s student in History at Sciences Po.  Advised by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, he is writing his thesis in history and art history on the artist Frans Masereel and World War I.
Frans Masereel (1889-1972): Idealism in the Art of an Eyewitness to History

          “Masereel makes ‘good’ images like Tolstoy makes ‘good’ books: they are to be understood by all: by the servant as well as by the artist and by the student as well as the professor.  And, like the verses of Walt Whitman, his works belong to an imaginary democracy.  He can show them just as well to workers and apprentices as to the greatest artists.”  With these words, Stefan Zweig explained the universal aspect of the work of the Belgian engraver and painter Frans Masereel (1889-1972).1
          Masereel struggled his entire life long for an ideal and egalitarian society, and while he expressed himself in a violent way through his art against all that, within society, degrades man, his work could also celebrate life in a more optimistic tone.  These two aspects go to make Masereel an artist who was and remained an artist of the ideal.  And yet, since the ideal is a component of the political sphere, it is difficult to speak of equality without talking politics, and that was all the more so the case during the twentieth century.

The Anarchist Behind the Opponent of the Great War

          Masereel was born in 1889 into a well-off family in Ghent.  He belonged to the French-speaking Flemish bourgeoisie, that of Émile Verhaeren, Maurice Maeterlinck, Henry Van de Velde, Georges Eekhoud, and Théo van Rysselberghe, among others. The comparison with Verhaeren is enlightening in more than one respect: Masereel undoubtedly saw much of himself in this poet, whom he had read and indeed enormously admired.2
          Viewed through the Verhaeren ideological prism, one realizes that Masereel’s artistic language was not born ex nihilo: along the lines of Paul Signac and Stéphane Mallarmé, Verhaeren believed in the power of art to transform society, though in an indirect way.  The anarchist intellectual has to pave the way for a new society, creating new forms of artistic expression that call for, in the reader, different perceptual and interpretive strategies and alternative visions of the world.3

          Thus, the artist is to share the revolutionary’s combat.  He has to express himself and herald a new era.  Yet, at the turn of the century, what one was obliged to produce was an individualistic form of art, as Verhaeren explained with regret in 1897:

Present-day society, being inharmonic, cannot—it goes without saying—inspire harmonic art.  The only thing left for the poet is to dream of a time when achieved social harmony will engender a new beauty and to sing of it and foresee it, if he has some genius.  Today, there is no large place available for anything but individualistic art in which each reflects his desires, his sorrows, his joys.  We are obliged to express but ourselves, and our work, profound or superficial, is but the mirror of our strength or our mediocrity.  An art that would be to literature what the Parthenon or the Cathedral of Chartres is to architecture or to sculpture is impossible at the present hour.4

          In such a society, this was an idea that had long been granted: art for art’s sake was a detestable idea among the anarchists.  What was needed, on the contrary, was a conscious form of art, a moral art that takes a position.  In An Appeal to the Young, published in 1885, Peter Kropotkin set the tone:

You, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, if you understand your true mission and the very interests of art itself, come with us.  Place your pen, your pencil, your chisel, your ideas at the service of the revolution. . . .  Show the people how hideous is their actual life.5

          Masereel had most likely read Kropotkin and internalized the “mission” the latter had set for the artist: producing art with a social goal.  Indeed, he had read Russian revolutionary writings (translated by his aunt, the wife of Professor Julius Mac Leod, an anarchist scientist teaching in Ghent).  A real anarchist-intellectual climate existed in Belgium that was genuinely implanted there from the 1890s until the War and, as Masereel found himself at the center of libertarian thought, it would have been surprising had he missed it.

Exile in Switzerland during the Great War: His Pacifist Commitment

          There was undoubtedly a share of idealism behind Masereel’s virulent critique of World War I.  Indeed, Masereel was not content just to denounce the War: like Verhaeren before him, he included, whether consciously or not, some of the elements of the harmonious society he imagined.  Society can be transformed, set ablaze; the people can seize their destiny.  A better world can arise, but it will have to begin with peace.
          Masereel was familiar with Henri Guilbeaux’s L’Assiette au Beurre.  At the start of the War, when he was in Paris, he offered, in vain, his collaboration.  In 1915, he joined Guilbeaux, Jean Salives, Henri Barbusse, and Pierre-Jean Jouve in Geneva, where they gathered around Romain Rolland.  There, Masereel worked for several newspapers and reviews and created his own newspaper and publishing house along with some collaborators.  Each day, he delivered a drawing or an engraving to the local Geneva pacifist press.  The newspaper and review with which he collaborated (La Feuille and Les Tablettes) were published in Switzerland but banned in both France and Germany, where they were nonetheless read in secret.6
          His graphic commentaries bore on statements or excerpts from speeches, from both sides of the front, about the fate of populations or about the horror of war in general.  The tirelessly critical spirit of Masereel’s daily drawings in La Feuille, his disengagement from all nationalist propaganda, and the brutal nature of his themes and images7 are among the remarkable aspects of his work at the start of his career.  Nevertheless, Masereel was not a mere satirist: the artist was working like a galley slave against the War in order to spread the idea of fraternity among peoples as well as to encourage the various populations to reject war and reestablish the human priorities that had been lost sight of since 1914.  In violently contrasting black and white images, he tirelessly demanded peace.
          His work as a whole is stamped with the anarchism in which he was immersed.  One can make out the main features of his vocabulary: like Gustave-Henri Jossot, he condemned the bourgeoisie, the Church, and militarism while calling for a new world (the Sun played a major annunciatory role; the fire was ready).  He focused attention on those overlooked by society, in particular women and children.  The crowd is anonymous, immense, and uniform, but it is compact and powerful.  He grants it a decisive force: it can do violence, so peace has to come from the peoples of the world.  As for God, he is often overwhelmed, and the image of Christ is used again and again to condemn human error and horror.  Woman is omnipresent, and the young man is the victim here (as soldier, worker, revolutionary, or as Socialism).8
          However, he separated the ideal from political reality: as soon as the revolution really began to unfold in Russia, Russia passed from the symbolic woman (Annunciation) or the martyred young man (worker, proletarian, solider as victim, revolutionary) to personification in the form of Trotsky or Lenin.  Likewise, as soon as the Armistice was signed, under bad conditions, it went from symbolic peace to a paper towel or leaden sheet bearing the name “Peace Treaty.”
          Each day, Masereel drew in order to point readers’ mentalities in a particular direction: peoples are brothers and can seize hold of their own destiny, but they have to get beyond traditional society led by the Government and the bourgeoisie in order that peace might finally come.  While it is interesting, the artistic language employed by Masereel in his drawings was nonetheless as expressive and powerful as it was later to become in his engravings, where he had more time to prepare and was to dispense with any text.  It was in this way that the passage from critical journalist to genuine artist was effectuated.
          His stay in Geneva lasted only until 1921.  But it allowed him to find both his mode of expression and the tool of his trade, as well as to make a name for himself in the world of engraving, a democratic instrument if there ever was one.  Numerous illustrations for books and the direct influence he exerted upon French-speaking Swiss artists9 attest to the fact that he had attained artistic maturity.

A Universal Work: “Each Man Ought to be King on Earth”

          As early as 1918, he published “Wordless Novels,” graphic novels that dispensed with captions, printed first in limited editions with popular reissues following quickly thereafter.  His work spread quite rapidly and experienced considerable success, in particular in Germany, where a print run could sometimes reach 100,000 copies.  Masereel was doubly popular.  He produced an art that was accessible outside museums, not eternal, and reflected rather the contemporary era.  He was also close to and amid the people in that he sung of life as Verhaeren had encouraged him to do.  Indeed, in an individualistic manner, he celebrated life, that of every individual who might recognize himself in his humanistic song:

And this [generation] is in ferment, and it is standing up and living a life that can now no longer be crushed, even though that life is lived is underground and costs dearly.  A generation is rising up that is already almost cleansed of bourgeois vices; it seeks in the simplicity of life, in sturdy gentleness, in mutual aid accepted or given in accordance with one’s needs, and in the cooperation of each for the fulfillment of happiness, man’s consoling raison d’être. . . .  What is at issue here is not at all social art, art enslaved to theories or programs; the question is raised in a wholly other fashion.  To express oneself as one is, doing so in the most sincere and ardent way, that is the lot of the poet.  What he will have that is dearest and clearest to him, what stirs his emotion each day, his will each hour, that is what he will express right away, because his entire head and his whole heart will be filled with that. . . .  He will have made a pure and personal work.10

          Thus, while it is true that Masereel abandoned protest art after the War in favor of an individualistic form of art, such art was of a kind that praised the simple life and thereby became universal.  He represented the joys of life, woman, children, nature . . . and his characters continue to bear the hope of a new society that would come through revolution.11
          During the interwar period, his quite numerous works had some obvious points in common: they contain utopian ideas, class struggle—ideas that have almost socialist leanings.  One discovers Masereel’s vision of the real and idealized world (the omnipresent young man is almost a self-portrait).  One also finds a libertarian language; the protagonist, a universal and eternal revolutionary, returns to nature after having lived in the big city, tries to help the revolution along, opposes society, and so on.  But never did Masereel give a name to this revolution.
          These graphic novels were to enjoy great success.  And there is no doubt that Masereel contributed a great deal to the worldwide artistic revolution in engraving through a renewal of the Flemish tradition.  He was thus considered the leader of a great group of Belgian engravers unofficially named “The Five” (with the Cantré brothers, George Minne, and  Henri Van Straten).12

A Free Spirit?

          Masereel was an anarchist through the image he attempted to project of a new and ideal world.  He nonetheless described himself his whole life long as apolitical.  And yet, not signing up as a member of any political party does not mean being devoid of political convictions.  Unsurprisingly, he was a sympathizer of socialist and communist groups in their common efforts again Fascism in the 1930s.  He was associated with Barbusse, Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Jean-Richard Bloch, Louis Aragon, among others, worked for Clarté, produced antifascist tracts, participated in the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, and so on.  His books and his wood engravings were burned in 1933 in Germany, he was banned from visiting that country, and he even received a public death threat in 1936.
          It must be noted that, while he was on the heights of anarchist idealism, he would descend from his clouds to take positions (against certain things).  He continued to sing of his ideal, but this ideal seems to have had to set foot on earth beginning in the 1930s and took shape in Soviet socialism.  Despite some warnings (from Zweig, Rolland, and his friend and protector Georg Reinhart) given him on several occasions, Masereel seems to have become fascinated by the USSR.  He made two trips there, and, so as to better appreciate his second stay, learned Russian, returning from his visit enchanted by the experience.
          In Du noir au blanc (1939), the artist undertook to represent the history of the world in a single work, from the Creation until communist society.  Although his priority was to provide a lyrical reading, he granted that it could be interpreted in a Marxist sense.  His idealism poured over into the political sphere.  Masereel went from idealistic egalitarianism, placed above the Great War (as Rolland was “above the mêlée”), to an explicitly formulated position against fascism.  But without him admitting to it, he also became politicized for socialism, which for him was the best applied version of egalitarianism.
          What did he himself say about it?  Masereel wanted a “cultivated form of socialism” in which men would be mature enough to live lives in common.  He wanted an “ideal, anarchist-looking type of communism that would not, however, exclude individualism.  But this is not possible, for man’s mentality is not yet cultivated enough,” he said in a 1969 interview.13  Consequently, he made do for a while with the Soviet regime.  Until his death, this never explicitly avowed admiration remained ambiguous.

Political Cooptation of the Engraving Work of An Idealist

          It is interesting to note that Masereel adopted an idealistic language that was so clear that it has been recycled a number of times, especially by revolutionary movements and in the people’s democracies of Eastern Europe.  In 1981, Frank Popper explained the success of engraving as a “privileged means of expression at a time of tension and upheaval”; in times of peace, it allowed an “exceptional spreading of the influence of the work and a democratization of art.”14  This is undoubtedly what explains why, sometimes despite himself, Masereel has been part of the world artistic current that made twentieth-century wood engraving into the reflection of freedom struggles.
          And as establishment of the ideal often goes by way of revolution, it is not surprising to see him reused in different revolutionary contexts.  Masereel was published clandestinely in China in the 1930s.  The revolutionary intellectual Lu Xun had obtained copies of Masereel’s books and brought them back to China to publish them there so as to provide a vocabulary for revolutionary artists.  A thesis and several exhibitions15 have established the indisputable influence of Masereel’s engraving work on revolutionary Chinese engraving.  He is, moreover, famous and celebrated in the Soviet Union, and in the people’s democracies of Eastern Europe his work cannot be passed over.  He is well enough known for one to be able to identify the places where one has borrowed from the forms and contents of his work: in Socialist Realism, he was to engraving what Fernand Léger was to painting.16
          Finally, we must mention the peculiar situation that was in store for him in Germany.  Novice engravers have been inspired by his work to learn their technique.17  There was almost a dispute over the sense of attachment felt for Masereel’s work.  In the GDR, Minister Gerhart Ziller explained in 1949 that the Gaullists in France and the Christian Democrats in the Federal Republic found it in their interest to silence rather than spread his words, whereas in Democratic Germany, on the contrary, he found an attentive public that listened to him.18  However, he also taught in the FRG (in Saarbrücken), starting right after the War.  He was accepted and celebrated by both by East and West, in nonexclusive fashion.  It must not be forgotten that he was extremely popular in Germany before the rise of Fascism.
          While he was coopted by the Soviet, Chinese, and people’s democracies, he was also very much appreciated in the West, where his work was finally celebrated after World War II (Grand Prize in Venice in 1953, shows in the major capitals of the Western world).  The artist undoubtedly did not entirely overshadow the pacifist, antifascist, and member of the Resistance from the very start, but the fact is that Masereel was truly (re)discovered after the War and one likes to associate him with his ideology.19
          In the 1969 interview previously cited, Masereel explains his “East-West” success in the 1950s and 1960s in terms of the “universal humanism” of his work, which speaks to everyone.  It is difficult for a twentieth-century artist to escape the political sphere, just as it is difficult for a political project that is at least a little bit democratic to avoid Masereel’s black-and-white images.


1.Stefan Zweig’s Preface to the monograph on Frans Masereel published in 1923 by Axel Juncker Verlag (Berlin).

2. As early as 1917, Masereel was illustrating the poems of Verhaeren—this was, indeed, one of his first published works: Quinze poèmes de Verhaeren (Paris: Georges Crès).  He illustrated Verhaeren’s work again in 1921, and still now his engravings are frequently used to accompany Verhaeren’s poems (see, for example, Le Passeur d’Eau, 1955).

3. David Gullentops and Hans Vandevoorde, eds., Anarchisten rond Emile Verhaeren (Brussels: VUBPress, 2005).

4. Émile Verhaeren, in response to a survey,  L’Enclos, January-February 1897, in Gullentops and Vandevoorde, p. 197.

5. Peter Kropotkin, in Gullentops and Vandevoorde, op. cit. pp. 74-75 (using, for the English translation, the 1921 Max N. Maisel edition).

6. In the historiography of the Museum of the Great War in Péronne, the force of the pressure of Genevan pacifism is granted only an insignificant place.  But it must be pointed out that a newspaper like La Feuille experience a fourfold and elevenfold increase in annual subscriptions and circulation between 1918 and 1919.  The pacifist press was therefore not inconspicuous.

7. See the 1917 series Debout les morts! (Stand up, dead men!) and Les morts parlent (The dead speak).

8. It will be observed, moreover, that the German soldier and the French soldier are indistinguishable: as the Frenchman and the German are brothers and had nothing to do with this war, when he referred to Germany or to France Masereel represented Hindenburg or Clemenceau with equal hostility.  The two peoples are identical, for they are the fraternal victims of their rulers.

9. See Alexandre Mairet, Edmond Bille, as well as Maurice Barraud, and in particular Bernard Wyder’s Alexandre Mairet: les gravures sur bois (Lausanne: Les Éditions d’en bas, 1991).

10. Émile Verhaeren, Le Réveil, October 1894.

11. Mon Livre d’heures (1918), 25 images de la passion d’un homme (1918), La Ville (1925), L’Idée (1927), and the illustrations, in 1926, for Charles De Coster’s Flemish literary classic Ulenspiegel.

12. Joris Minne, Lumière en het ontstaan van de grafische groep “De Vijf” (Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1964).

13. Film by Frans Buyens, Ik houd van zwart en wit, 1969.

14. In the catalogue for the 1981 exhibition at France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, “50 ans de gravures sur bois chinoises, 1930-1980.”

15. See, in this regard, the 2003 art history dissertation by Marine Capmarty, Frans Masereel (1889-1972): l’oeuvre gravé d’un artiste engagé et le renouveau de la xylographie en Chine, the above-mentioned 1981 exhibition, and the 2009-2010 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts of Ghent entitled “Roar China! Lu Xun, Masereel et l’avant-garde graphique en Chine, 1919-1949.”

16. Jérôme Bazin, “Le réalisme socialiste et ses modèles internationaux,” in Vingtième Siècle (Le bloc de l’Est, entre global et national), 109 (January-March 2011).

17. Erhard Werndel, Holzschnitt Holzstich. Eine praktische Anleitung (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann Verlag, 1968).

18. Gerhart Ziller’s preface to the book that appeared in Dresden (Sachen Verlag, 1949).

19. Catholic circles have also reappropriated his work.  See the book on Masereel and Christian worker movements, De optimisten hebben de wereld: Frans Masereel en de christelijke arbeidersbeweging (Berchem: EPO, 2005).


BUYENS, Frans. Ik houd van zwart en wit. Amsterdam: Films Lyda-Dacapo, 1962.

FLORQUIN, Joos. Ten Huize van… Leuven: Davidsfonds,1969.

McGILL, William. Frans Masereel, Contemporary Master of the Flemish Woodcut. Doctoral thesis at the Catholic University of Louvain, 1957.

PINKUS, Theo, and Bernard ANTENEN. Frans Masereel, Bilder gegen den Krieg. Frankfurt/Main: Zweitausendeins, 1981.

VAN PARYS, Joris. Frans Masereel (1889-1972). Une biographie. Bruxelles: AML Éditions,2008

VORMS, Pierre. Gespräche mit Frans Masereel. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1967.