Master engraver George A. Walker presents The Life and Times of Conrad Black, a wordless biography of the Canadian-born media mogul. With 100 stunning woodcuts, Walker affords readers a glimpse of Black as a child, as a successful businessman, as a British peer, and as a convicted felon.
With a series of 100 woodcuts, master engraver George A. Walker presents in black and white the portrait of a man whose life has played out among the grey shadows of the media industry.
Walker’s latest wordless novel introduces a measure of silence to one of the most outspoken and talked-about figures in modern Canadian history. The Life and Times of Conrad Blackdocuments the eventful life of the Canadian-born media baron, from his earliest childhood influences, to his rise to power at the helm of Hollinger International, his membership in the British peerage, and the ruin of his business and his good name after being convicted of fraud. Stripped of the facts and circumstances but roughly ordered chronologically according key milestones in Black’s life, Walker conveys meaning not through verbal allegation, but through visual implication, presenting a unique perspective of Black’s life and the conditions that shaped it.
The Life and Times of Conrad Black is a story of wealth and power, perception and reality, truth and lies, but Walker’s images teach us that no story has only two sides. This story is a polygon of meaning, and no one side contains all of the truth.
The Life and Times of Conrad Black originated as a limited edition of 13 copies hand printed in Walker’s studio in Leslieville, Toronto.
Description for reader
This muted narrative, told in engravings bathed in silence, is configured from the gestures and attitudes of the people whose story it is. The artist has stripped away the specific references for the images, the facts of the public record, even the dates themselves, and allows a deeper tale to emerge from this story of no words. When released from the reality beyond the page and cut loose from the authority of the sources, another protagonist is incarnated from the inky prints.
Here is a story of a man whose life is defined by hubris. The narrative cadence enfolds an iconography and a persona given over to reading and writing. He creates realities from the written word – alphabets of the imagination. Stories of great figures – fictions of a different sort – reflect back on this wordless tale, set down in pictures engraved and printed as indelibly as the newspapers and books that are dominant in the life of Walker’s Black.
What does Walker tell us in this life of a man who rose and fell, whose reach and intellect were able to shape opinion, structure history, delineate a personal chronology so powerfully that, in this true telling, a hybrid fiction is invented and revealed in black ink on white paper?
The protagonist, we quickly learn, is a man of manners, adept at games of strategy and stealth. He is well schooled and subject to several forms of abuse aimed to curb his truant impulses. Cruelty: this, Walker declaims pictorially, is what moulded his man, engraving his spirit with a calm, controlled demeanour belying a vast reservoir of wisdom and strength of character, perhaps even mendacity. The grim-faced fathers and patriarchs, plutocrats and titans, these almighty men lend our hero dimensions of character and act as foils against whom he measures himself, the better to calibrate his calculated advance into the very heart of their powerful domains.
Walker’s Black is as clever as he is learned. He sits astride a zephyr caressing the massive stones that articulate the façades of a great banking hall; or in an office, at a typewriter, and writes stories. History, biography – fictions of a sort – these fuel the man in his private, creative moments. The life of his mind makes sense of roiling events cascading down through the decades, playing out in a country and its renegade province unused to men like him.
The public theatre, we are shown, comprises men of action and gesture. The microphone, the academic gown, these appurtenances spell out a script measured by the judgment of his mind and the unctuous tone of his players. Events are described in books; chaos is held firm in the pages of text and black ink pasted down between the covers. Our man writes, inscribes the voices and incantations of the people he meets and sizes up. His perceptions plumb the surfaces of glib postures and staged performance.
In the black-and-white rhythms of his engravings, Walker choreographs sharp contrasts of lights and darks as they play with sight and perception to make sense of intervals. In the sequence in which these graphic glyphs appears, Walker describes silence, punctuating the blank spaces and pages with posed attenuated portraits and hermetic scenes. In silent voices that speak in pictures on these pages, we hear of our man establishing a profile in business as well as in affairs of the church and in the convocations of the aristocracy. A family man; and yet Walker’s Black measures himself against peers in suits, in the regalia of nobility, and in the costumes of the entertainer. He is a Canadian.
Above all, Walker tells us that this person writes and reads books. It is as if in the act of reading our hero is conjured whole from the page. From the artist’s mind we see a man who is a product of his past, freighted with certainty and governed by rectitude and proper manners.
Hubris. Walker’s Black is brought low by the very strengths he worked so persistently to cultivate. Aged before his time by gravitas, he shows hubris by the capacity of his knowledge and by his wisdom, by his strength and endurance, by the force of his will and by a keen instinct that he can use words to craft opinion while writing history. Rising to prominence by piling Pelion on Ossa, Walker’s Black becomes the master of the alphabets of images and imagination, steeped in the nomenclature of commerce whose declensions confer righteousness on him and grant him esteem in the eyes of those who study his messages.
Father, author, magnate, as our man grows so too do the shadows of his fathers and mentors. They cast a heavy mood over thought and action, causing him, in order to stride on a larger stage, to turn his back on his ancestors and his country. Our man is proud, sure that mind and action can subdue any adversary. Rigorous, Walker’s Black tamps down unrest, disposes of laxity as he would a box of files, with the simple turn of a palm, the touch on a shoulder, the secret whispered surreptitiously into the ear of a fellow traveller, a confidant, a friend or a treacherous infidel.
Who is Walker’s Black? In the sharp delineation of black and white, the only space for subtle gradation lies in the interval between the pages of a book or the sheets of a newspaper. Contrast is softened in the wordless rhythms of blacks and whites. In their interplay, a complex story forms, silent, pregnant with possibilities, enigmatic.
The life of Walker’s Black is relayed in a series of episodes, discrete yet connected by the seamless involvement of the reader seeking coherence in the detail and veracity in the pictures’ hermeticism. Event and episode, the sequence is discombobulated and apparently random, without a discernible pattern. The initial impulses set in motion in the early years tumble forward through decades, culminating in downfall and catharsis. Our man finds, in the blackness of the prison world, a means of redemption by teaching his fellow inmates to read.
Walker’s Black is defined by the freedom of his mind, unshackled by the anchor of his youth, prison and expectations that force him to assume identities that are not true. In the end, Walker brings together the complements of black and white to show that reading without words is the ultimate act of liberation and a way of finding harmony in the voiceless commotion beyond the page.
Introduction or preface
Conrad Black is one of the most outspoken and charismatic characters in the elusive one percent of people who make up the Establishment in Canada. He is a public person of international stature, at one time a media baron and still a man of great influence and wealth. This wordless narrative chronicles his rise and fall through the parade of images that surround and tell his story. It is a story of Black’s wealth and power, and of how he has been portrayed in the media and the larger cultural theatres in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. It is also a story of how power and authority are seen, represented and, often, resented. As well, it is an object lesson in how we read visual images of a life and interpret the meaning of the story from what we see.
Some of the images are based on photographs widely and publicly available in the media, while others were invented in my mind as I began to work on this book. All, I hope, are true to the man and the biography. Each image is hand engraved on the endgrain of a block of Canadian maple wood. An original limited edition comprising thirteen copies of the book was printed by hand on my Vandercook press and hand bound. I planned from the beginning to make a book that illustrates the most pivotal events in Conrad Black’s life and that respectfully pictures his triumphs and tribulations. I make no comment or judgment. I have never met him, although he has kindly responded to my questions and made many helpful suggestions.
The story is told as a wordless novel in the traditional sense, with the engraved images as the text. The story exists much like a silent movie, with the reader interpreting the narrative as the images pass before the eyes. The narrative has its own, unique grammar. The irony, of course, is that Conrad Black is a wordsmith whose vocabulary far exceeds my own. However, I believe these images go beyond the limitations of language to capture the man behind the mask.
How you interpret these images will depend largely on your knowledge of the Canadian Establishment and the friends and associates of Lord Conrad Moffat Black. Some of the characters in the pictures you may recognize; others, you will not. Many of the images work because the characters are anonymous and represent players in the culture of business and bureaucracy. I have included images of E.P. Taylor and Bud McDougald, two titans of Canadian industry who had an influence on the character of Lord Black. Some of the images were suggested by Black himself, including Judge Amy St. Eve, and the illustration of Lord Black kissing the ring of Pope John Paul II.
Conrad Black related his stressful time at Upper Canada College in his 1993 book, A Life in Progress. I used some of that text to inspire me, but Black himself suggested the schoolmaster caning pictures and said in a note to me, “It was a frequent occurrence and I’m not at all embarrassed about it; in the perverse world of schoolboys it was a bit of a badge of honour.”
Conrad Black’s greatest mistake was underestimating the power of his adversaries in the US justice system. Many commentators have said he would not have been convicted in Canada or Great Britain, but changes in the American justice system gave extraordinary powers to prosecutors to pursue white-collar crime and increase the conviction rate. Black said in 2007 that his conviction would “only compound the injustice of this entire vendetta.”
No matter your opinion of the man, you cannot help but appreciate Lord Black’s sense of confidence, iron will, self-esteem and serene certainty. This book is not a judgment of the man and his character, nor is it a silent critique; it is a parable of a media man and his very public struggles over a matter of principle, not money.
The idea for the book began in 2011, when I was putting the finishing touches on my wordless narrative about the life of Tom Thomson and considering what my next project might be. Since at the time Black’s ongoing legal battles in Chicago were front-page news, a friend joked that I should create my next wordless narrative about the life and times of Conrad Black.
Why not? I immediately thought I should write to Lord Black and see if he would oppose the idea. On November 2, 2011, when he was an inmate of the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida, I wrote a letter to him, although I thought there was little chance he would respond given all the things that were likely on his mind. I was pleasantly surprised when he responded with a note that said, “Thanks for your message and for the flattering thought. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be an open participant in such a work, though I am flattered to be assimilated to Tom Thomson. If you obtained a copy of my earlier book A Life in Progress, that, coupled with the current volume [A Matter of Principle], would give you all that you would need to proceed. If you choose to go forward with your project, and wished to ask my opinion on specific matters as you do, of course I would be happy to respond. In any case, thank you for thinking of me in this context. My best wishes to you.”
In my letter to him I explained why I wanted to create a work about him. There was the Canadian connection, of course, and the fact that Conrad Black is a flamboyant personality with a complex history. He has both held the reins of power and felt the persecution of the very system he supported and believed in. With Lord Black’s encouragement, I set out to image his life in a sequence of one hundred hand-rendered wood engravings. If I have learned anything from this project it is that every story is a polygon of sides and that no one side contains all of the truth.
—George A. Walker, November 2012
George A. Walker (Canadian, b. 1960) is an award-winning wood engraver, book artist, teacher, author, and illustrator who has been creating artwork and books and publishing at his private press since 1984. Walker’s popular courses in book arts and printmaking at the OCAD University in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor, have been running continuously since 1985. For over twenty years Walker has exhibited his wood engravings and limited edition books internationally, often in conjunction with The Loving Society of Letterpress (and The Binders of Infinite Love) and the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG). Among many book projects Walker has illustrated two hand-printed books written by author Neil Gaiman. Walker also is the illustrator of the first Canadian editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass books (Cheshire Cat Press). George A. Walker was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art for his contribution to the cultural area of Book Arts.
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