Comics Herstory: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová
Wordless novels first came into fashion in Germany in the early twentieth century, emerging from the Expressionist movement and often featuring political themes. Because these books were designed with mass production in mind, the illustrations were made using woodcut, wood or metal engraving, or linocut techniques. Wordless novels are largely considered an early precursor to graphic novels.
Czech artist Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová was the first woman to employ this medium with her wordless novel, Z mého dětství (From My Childhood). She discovered the genre while studying the work of Flemmish artist Frans Masereel, who published the first wordless novel, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, in 1918. From My Childhood was published in 1929 and rather than showing the experiences of the working class, Bochořáková-Dittrichová illustrated the sheltered life of a middle class woman. Many of her works were influenced by her own life, with themes like oppression, religion, and history.
An exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts showed five of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s published novels in 2014. The exhibit also included fifty-two pages from an unpublished work titled Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on Her Journey), which seems to be largely autobiographical.
Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s contribution to this early genre, though not particularly well-known, should also not be forgotten. Women have been writing and making art about their lives since art has existed, and her wordless novels introduced this topic into a new genre. Though these topics are far from today’s superhero stories, writings and art about domesticity and middle class experience is important from a historical standpoint. Women’s domestic and social lives have long been the subject of their writings (think Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott) because that’s what women knew.
Bochořáková-Dittrichová is largely unknown, but her body of work is further proof that women are often, if not heading new movements, at least there from the early beginnings. Her work, like that of those before her, helped to pave the way for women after her. It is also a very early example of graphic memoir, a genre in which women’s narratives have flourished.