Graphic Witness: visual arts & social commentary [Frans Masereel]

Frans Masereel
Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel

other book illustrations:

Die Idee 1920 [partial]

Die Stadt 1925 [complete]
Masereel home page

Landschaften und Stimmungen, 1929 [complete]

2 of 25 images from Danse Macabre,1941

3 of 20 images from La Colère, 1946.

Publisher: Herbert Lang, Libraire-Éditeur, Berne.

Charles de Coster's 1943 book, with 100 woodcut illustrations by Frans Masereel, The Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel, includes a chronological table covering European military/political events, especially between Spain and The Netherlands,1519-1609. This timeless story is based on earlier writings and oral folk tales.

In the mid-19th century, Charles de Coster (1827-1879) a Flemish lawyer-turned-writer, organized into an epic novel the 16th century Northern European folk tales centering on the adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel. His book, titled Ulenspiegel was published first in 1869.

Tyl and his donkey Tyl Ulenspiegel is a prankster, a painter, a wandering Wise Fool (complete with a court jester's three-belled cap). His gentle father Claes is a charcoal burner; his compassionate mother Soetkin later raises a mad-woman's daughter as her own, to prevent the terrible punishment then meted out to unwed mothers. This baby girl, Nele, is destined to be Tyl's true love. Tyl is made an orphan, due to the extremes of religious fanaticism and war, both attributable to the policies of King Philip II of Spain (married to 'Bloody' Mary Tudor, of England).

De Coster has hung the folk tales on a factual historical framework. As the introduction to the 1943 edition states:
"Ulenspiegl's story is the history of his country, for De Coster chose as subject the revolution of seven Low Country provinces, in the sixteenth century, against the power of Spain represented by King Philip II and the Duke of Alba, his governor and hangman in Flanders... It is significant that, although Ulenspiegel has never been unread or forgotten, it has always been vigorously revived in times of war... like all truly great books, it mirrors the passions and struggles that belong to all ages, all places, all men driven to fight for liberty."

King Philip as child inquisition Philip is Tyl's doppleganger in this story; he and Tyl are born at the same time, and both their storylines are included. In the image on the left, illustrating the text, we see Philip as a child, practicing the burning of heretics using his "pet" monkey. Tyl's father [right] is also tortured and burned to death, thanks to Philip's edicts.
Tyl and his donkey, either together or separately, are iconic, representing variously humble origins, enduring strength and stubborn survival. A. Paul Weber, another book illustrator and a graphic witness to the same wars as Masereel, has also used both Ulenspiegel and his donkey to convey political satire and caricature.
idea1The Idea [Die Idee], first published 1920, has been republished by The Redstone Press, 1986 and reprinted 1991. The small, 1991 boxed edition contains two (out of a total of eight) original novels by Masereel, all of them "told in woodcuts." These two are titled The Idea and Story Without Words. The cover of the box cites Thomas Mann's response to them "' compelling, so deeply felt, so rich in ideas that one never tires of looking at them.'"

"An Idea springs from the mind of the Thinker and goes out into the world. She is naked, female, radiant, a pocket Venus embodying all ideals, and she finds herself in the mean streets of a twentieth century city -- among politicians and fat cats, torturers and striptease audiences, who take the Idea and use it for their own ends, or reject and try to destroy it..." [from a review in The Independent]

[above] The first image in the book: the "Thinker" is blocked, as though his thoughts were caught in a web.

idea2 idea3In the second image [left], the Idea strikes, with the force of lightning. [right] Here we first meet the Idea as she springs from his now web-cleared brain.

The Thinker demonstrates his love for the Idea, and sad to let her go, sends her out into the world (in an envelope). But this beautiful Idea is not well received. People try to change the Idea, (rather than let the Idea change them); they attempt to clothe her, to tone down her alluring charms. Inspired by the Idea, one person is arrested and ultimately shot by a firing squad, but of course the Idea cannot die so easily.

refuge at printer press run book burning idea survives After unsuccessfully offering herself to people in the countryside, the small town and the big city, the Idea attracts the attention of a scientist, who tries to confine her -- however, Ideas must be free. She flees and finds refuge at a book publisher [left]. The books and materials that contain the Idea are burned, but as ever, the Idea is not destroyed [right].

After numerous other adventures and an arduous journey, the Idea, now exhausted, returns to the Thinker; meanwhile, he has embraced a new Idea, which is sent forth as the book ends.

Please note: All images in Graphic Witness are for personal enjoyment or educational use. Any other use is prohibited.
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first put on-line 4 April 99