Frans Masereel’s “The City” (1925)

A Look at Interwar European Cities

Frans Masereel (1889-1972) was a Flemish artist who was known as being one of the progenitors of the graphic novel. Masereel’s wordless novels give a glimpse into class struggles in European urban centres. Factory scenes, large towering machinery, hunger, and poverty feature prominently in these panels.

The artist also keenly observes the treatment of women and critiques sexist objectification. Viewers will notice Masereel’s portrayal of what today would be called the male gaze. Often, police and those in authority abuse citizens in these vignettes. Murder and death are commonplace.

Other images show public speakers inciting crowds, can-can dancers performing for diverse audiences, and men with amputated arms and legs (presumably from the First World War) playing with children in the streets. Typists work under devilish looking bosses. The infirm lay still in their beds. Women breastfeed their children.

The City was produced after the artist returned to France from Switzerland, where he had been living during World War I. The work aptly reflects the disillusionment of the interwar years both in desperation and excess. Masereel’s wordless novels were produced using woodcuts. In the original printings, each page featuring a single image.

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