John Held, Original linoleum cut from "Frankie and Johnny"

John Held, Original linoleum cut from "Frankie and Johnny"

HELD, John, Jr. (1889-1958).  “She Aimed a Shot at the Ceiling and Shot a Hole in the Floor” (1915).  Original linoleum cut, 11½ x 9, with a later print pulled from the block by the Wild Carrot Letterpress, 17 x 11½.  Some dents to the block, affecting the print, but remarkably fresh condition overall.

The original linoleum block for a page from Held’s wonderful rendition of the ballad, The Saga of Frankie and Johnny.  Held claimed to have learned the song as a lad from “a colored piano player, who was called ‘Professor’ in a parlor house … run by a lady who was called Madam Helen Blazes.” Held continues: “You may conclude that mine was a misspent youth, but the knowing of these ladies and the houses that they ran has enabled me to fashion this book of woodcuts from fond memories.”

Swaggering talk, but Held was still a youth when he executed the cuts around 1915, and perhaps not much older when his illustration were first published in 1930, at the breaking crest of a Frankie and Johnny wave ridden by John Huston, Miguel Covarrubias, Thomas Hart Benton, Sterling Brown, and Leadbelly. Continuing homage was paid by Mae West, Milt Gross, and Hugh Hefner, who reprinted Held’s illustrations in the first issue of Playboy.

“The engraving of these blocks has taken many hours and a strong right arm,” Held wrote. We commonly think of Held as a comic artist associated with the iconic cartoons of the roaring 20s.  But the illustrations for Frankie and Johnny owe as much to German expressionism, and particularly Die Brücke, as to American aesthetic idioms. Note, for example, the shadows at Frankie’s feet.

This illustration, one of a suite of 23, portrays the critical moment at the pawn shop, when Frankie tests the instrument of Johnny’s undoing, “a big forty-four.”  The pawnbroker, wearing a traditional kippah, evokes some representational Jewish stereotypes, but not to the point of offense.

Our search of auction records, library catalogues, and museum inventories has turned up no other original blocks by Held. An extraordinary survival from the artist’s earliest period.

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    John Held, Original linoleum cut from "Frankie and Johnny"