Preface in English


Frans Masereel – realising the dream of a free society
Peter Riede
President of the Frans Masereel-Stiftung in Saarbrücken
 

Already at the beginning of World War I, Frans Masereel, a Fleming born in 1889, was “attacking the lies of every nation, hauling them over the coals of his righteous fury” (Kasimir Edschmidt). In
thousands of drawings and woodcuts he recorded the monstrosity and senselessness of war in his “wish to convey at least an approximate image of those accursed times”. 
“If someone were to wish to sum up my work in a few words,” he would say, “he could say that it is dedicated to the tormented, directed against tormentors in all areas of social and spiritual life,
it speaks out for the fraternity of humanity, turns against all whose aim is to set people at odds with each other or incite conflict, it is addressed to those who desire peace and despise warmongers.” Thomas Mann underlined that it was war that intensified Masereel’s creativity. This kind of art is extremely rare; it is this brand of art that fosters the development of “universal values central to the world and to humanity”. Kasimir Edschmidt calls Masereel a great “preacher of humanism”.
 
In the 1920s and 1930s Masereel’s main area of activity was painting. Martin Stather, in the catalogue to an exhibition organised in 1998 in the Mannheim Kunstverein, writes of this period as follows: “Nevertheless, works on the big city theme are witness (...) to his unsated fascination with Paris, pulsing with life. Street scenes featuring unemployed people, whores, lovers, demonstrations; images of nightclub life, with dancing couples and jazz bands, recreate the intoxicating atmosphere of the city. Still clearly under the influence of expressionism, yet erring into neither uncriticism nor sentimentalism, the artist is more a chronicler recording what he sees. The subject of these works is clearly man as a social being.”
 
His numerous stays in Equihen brought new, heavy, severe motifs into his paintings. Henry van de Velde called them “picturesquely monumental”. Richard Hiepe, a Munich art historian and journalist, put it in the following words: “As a graphic artist Masereel is as light as a breath of wind, while as a painter he is closely bound up with social themes and with his preferred milieu of the great French ports, first Boulogne-sur-Mer, then Marseilles, and lastly Nice, where he lived in his latter years. In paintings his pathos takes on primal forms.”
 
In the 1920s Masereel made several important cycles of woodcuts and drawings, many of which saw large print runs abroad: suffice it to mention The Idea, The Sun, Faces and Grimaces, Images from the Big City, and The Work. In 1928 Hermann Hesse made no secret of his admiration for the woodcut series Human Golgotha. “Since then,” he wrote, “Masereel has joined the ranks of those here below whom I love and worship, and whom I number among my spiritual brethren...” Klaus Mann, in 1931, noted: “Of all the creators of our age, Masereel is without doubt the one whom poets, writers and men of letters who do not usually see eye to eye love the most. He is adored by the mildest and the most radical, lyricists and politicians.”
 
For the Paris world exhibition in 1937 Masereel designed a huge tableau entitled The Funeral of War for the World Peace Association pavilion. In the neighbouring pavilion of the Republic of Spain, Pablo Picasso was showing Guernica. After the Nazis took power in Germany, Masereel’s works were removed from German museums as “degenerate”, and many of his books were burned. After the Germans occupied Paris in 1940 Masereel fled to the unoccupied South of France, where he was active in the anti-fascist Résistance. The 1940s produced many important antiwar works, such as Danse macabre, Rage and Remember – all of them naming and shaming horrifying crimes committed against humanity. In 1945 due to housing problems his attempt to resettle in Paris ended in fiasco. In 1947 Masereel accepted the post of lecturer at the School of Arts and Crafts in Saarbrücken. From 1949 he lived in the old port in Nice. “His beautiful new paintings shine with the luxuriant colours of succulent nature, the variety of carefree life,” wrote Gerhard Pommeranz-Liedtke in 1975. “These paintings are a passionate hymn to life.” Reinhard Müller-Mehlis added in 1985: “The most fascinating are his watercolours, executed with the verve of a great draughtsman and delighting the senses, as well as his pen-and-ink drawings and his oil paintings. His sentiment is genuine – every nuance, every line is correct. This is the school of observation, life and humanism.”
 
The 1950s and 1960s brought the artist a string of distinctions: the print Grand Prix at the 25th Biennale in Venice (1950), the title of foreign member of the Belgian Royal Academy of the Sciences, Literature and the Fine Arts (1951), the title of foreign member of the Academy of Fine Arts in East Berlin (1957), the Joost van den Vondel prize, awarded by the University of Münster (1962), and the Cultural Prize of the German Trade Unionists in Düsseldorf (1964).
Frans Masereel died in 1972 in Avignon. He is buried in Sint-Amandsberg, not far from Ghent.
 
In 1975 a list of Masereel’s works was published, along with a bibliography of his oeuvre in four languages, which includes 58 books, 126 works of world literature illustrated by him, and 37 publications on the artist’s life and work. In 1976 another list of works was published (800 drawings, 345 watercolours, 1,013 oil paintings, and 474 paintings on paper). This is not an exhaustive list of his works; the turmoil of war made full documentation impossible.
 
To mark the centenary of Masereel’s birth, in 1989 a number of important exhibitions were organised in Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland. The Frans Masereel Foundation (Frans-Masereel-Stiftung Saarbrücken), founded in 1987, published a book, Realising the dream of a free society. In 1992 Paul Ritter published a 750-page Bibliography of the graphic oeuvre, which, after the author’s death, was placed in the care of the Frans-Masereel-Stiftung, which is continuing to expand it. Another work worthy of note is Joris van Patys’ splendid biography, Masereel, of 1995, which provides a masterful compendium for further documentation and academic study. Since 2004 the foundation has also been running a website, www.frans-masereel.de, which acts as an international forum for both Masereel’s former friends and – we hope, following the Cracow exhibition – his new admirers.
 
We are especially grateful to all the academics, sponsors, collectors and everyone else who has contributed to this exhibition of the works of Frans Masereel in Cracow.
 
[translated by Jessica Taylor-Kucia]