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  • Yehoshua Paul

1929 - Gods' Man

1929. The first academy awards ceremony takes place. Rin Tin Tin gains the most votes for best actor, but the award is given to Emil Jannings, a human. The Outstanding Picture award is granted to Wings. And the Best Original Story is Underworld. Both Charlie Chaplin and Warner Pictures receive honorary awards. Several months later, Director Fritz Lang releases Woman in the Moon based on the book written by his wife, Thea Von Harbou. And, Paramount Pictures releases The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first sound film to feature Sherlock Holmes uttering the immortal words: “Elementary Dear Watson”. Also, millions of people are unemployed and hungry as a result of the New York Stock Exchange crash.

In August, in Eretz Yisrael, Arabs riot, massacring Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. 133 Jews are killed, and the Jewish community is forcibly evacuated from Hebron by the British Authorities. In September, London’s Stock exchange crashes, and in October, the New York Stock exchange crashes. These last two events trigger a 12-year Great Depression that affects all Western industrialized nations (see slideshow). Darkness has entered the world, and it will take a lot more than Hollywood’s glitz and glamor to dispel it. Instead, some perspective is offered by Gods’ Man, a wordless novel by Lynd Ward with some powerful reminders.

Lynd Ward (1905-1985) was an American artist best known for his series of wordless novels made from wood engravings, which strongly influenced the later development of the graphic novel. Ward was also an illustrator, and he worked in watercolor, oil, brush and ink, lithography and mezzotint to illustrate over a hundred children’s books, many in collaboration with his wife. He was also well known for the political themes of his artwork, which were frequently used to address labor and class issues.

Ward was drawn to art from a very early age and decided he was going to become an artist after learning that “Ward” spelled backwards is “draw”. After graduating high school, he studied fine arts at Columbia’s Teacher’s College in New York, where he met and married May Young McNeer. The honeymoon was a four month trip to Eastern Europe, followed by a relocation to Leipzig, Germany, where Ward studied as a special one-year student at the National Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookmaking. It was there that Ward learned the art of wood engraving from Hans Alexander "Theodore" Mueller, and there that Ward experienced a random encounter that changed his life.

The best way to spend your money is always at a bookstore because you never know what treasures you’ll find. The newlywed Ward couple had internalized this important truth early on in their marriage (yes, I’m embellishing), and during a random visit discovered a copy of the wordless novel The Sun by the Flemish artist, Franz Masereel – a story told in sixty-three woodcuts without captions. The book was a life-changing inspiration for Ward, and two years after the couple returned to the United States, he created Gods’ Man, published in October 1929, the same week as Wall Street crashed. Despite the terrible timing, the book became an instant bestseller, and over the next four years went through six printings and sold 20,000 copies. Ward then went on to publish five other novels using the same technique: Madman's Drum, Wild Pilgrimage, Prelude to a Million Years, Song without Words, and Vertigo. All of these books are currently in print and you can purchase them on BookDepository.

Gods’ Man tells the story of a young artist who arrives in the city. After eating at a restaurant payment is demanded by the surly owner who only accepts coins, not paintings. A dark gentleman comes to the artist’s rescue. He pays for the meal and after looking at the paintings offers the artist a magic brush if he agrees to sign a contract. A deal is struck. The artist then discovers that his paintings are suddenly in high demand. An agent offers to take him under his wing and offers him money, a loft, and a beautiful woman. The artist thinks he’s discovered happiness only to realize that he has become a brand, and that the woman he thought loved him was actually bought and paid for – and this is what everyone in the city does. When he tries to protest he is tossed in jail and then chased out of the city. The artist attempts suicide, only to be rescued by a woman who loves him for who he is, not his monetary value. They get married, and have a kid. However the artist signed a contract, and he still needs to pay up. Now imagine this paragraph in 139 prints of engraved woodblocks, and you’ve got Gods’ Man in a nutshell (if not, here are some).

Every good project requires a field trip and Sefer HaOmer is no different. I wanted to read an original Great Depression copy of the book, which meant a trip to the National Library of Israel with my wife, Tammy. The library had copies of the second printing and the sixth printing of the first edition of the book, which meant we got to enjoy the Ardon Windows before going to one of the reading rooms to experience the feel the original pages created from Ward’s engraved woodblocks. I’m attaching a link to a video on woodcut printing to give you an idea of how Ward created his images. The images were done in the German Expressionist style, and the level of detail they convey is absolutely mind blowing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In Gods’ man that number needs to be multiplied exponentially in order to fully comprehend the experience. This is also one of the books that I recommend purchasing for your library. Fair warning though. The book contains some serious modesty issues.

The Omer today is kindness in grandeur, one of the lessons taught by Gods’ Man. When visiting the city, an artificial man-made creation, all kindness shown to the artist is determined according to the value he can produce. The dark gentleman pays for the artists meal in order to strike a deal, and the agent offers the artist money, lodging, and a mistress in exchange for paintings. This is the idea of Sodom and Gomorrah, a place where kindness and generosity are alien concepts. It is only when the artist flees the city that he encounters kindness, and this leads him to him discover the simple grandeur of god’s creation, which is found in nature and the starry sky; a grandeur which anyone and everyone can enjoy for free. This message resonates strongly with me, even though I don’t fully agree with it. Just because you don’t need to pay anyone money to go visit the great outdoors, doesn’t mean that it’s not free of predators. And there is no lack of kindness to be found in the cities – even in 1929, even among the worst of us (Al Capone operated soup kitchens in Chicago during the great depression).

Ward and I are going to disagree on this one. Kindness can be used to expose greatness of spirit, a greatness of spirit that can be found in all of god’s creations, even those who reside in cities. The kindness may manifest itself in different ways (Gmachim, Random Acts of Kindness foundation), but it’s definitely there, and with it we get a chance to demonstrate the grandness of the human spirit.

(On a final note, if you're at all curious about woodcut printing, check out the video below.)


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