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Draw to Live and Live to Draw: Prints and Illustrations by Wanda Gag (1893 - 1946)

November 11, 2008 - May 17, 2009

 

The daughter of Anton Gag, a Bohemian immigrant who settled in New Ulm, Minnesota, Wanda Hazel Gag (1893 - 1946) is recognized today as one of the most pioneering female illustrators and printmakers of the 1920's and 30's. The exhibition presents her lithographs and book illustrations, as well as a selection of her drawings, letters and sketchbooks. The oldest of seven children, Wanda's parents died early, leaving her as a young teenager to raise her siblings and finish her own education. She illustrated magazines to help support the family, and won scholarships to study in Minneapolis and later in New York. (right: Wanda Gag, American, At 1061 (Self-portrait with sketchpad, at 1061 Madison Ave., New York), Gary and Dolly Harm Collection)

Wanda Gag's graphic art is distinguished by its use of dramatic shadows and highlights, as well as its sinuous, flowing shapes and lines. These features of her prints and drawings demonstrate her love for nature, and her desire to produce unity and rhythm out of "all the helpless fringes and frayed edges of our groping lives," as she stated in 1921 in a letter to artist Adolf Dehn.

Many of Gag's prints show the interiors of her grandmother's and relatives homes and farms, and her own rural farmstead in New Jersey, which she called "All Creation." The folktales told by her Czechoslovakian and Bohemian-immigrant relatives would later inspire many of the illustrated books Wanda Gag produced.

A successful show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1926 and publication in 1928 of her well-known children's book Millions of Cats enabled her to give up work as a commercial artist and move to rural New Jersey, where she continued to produce drawings, lithographs, and children's books until her death in 1946.

Wanda Gag contributed illustrations to the socialist magazines The Liberator and New Masses. Ahead of her time in many ways, Gag was an early feminist, a member of a progressive group of Greenwich Village artists in the 1920s, and a proponent of sexual freedom who did not marry until later in her life. She preferred living in rural areas and wore clothing she often designed herself based on traditional German and Czech styles.

 

Wall text and object labels from the exhibition

 

Printmaking
 
Along with her extremely popular children's books, Wanda Gag is well-known for her drawings and prints, which were always done in black and white. Gag used watercolor to paint in color, but she did not paint in oils until very late in her career, and considered her oil paintings to be experimental.
 
"I wonder about myself and painting," she mused in a 1934 diary entry. "Is there a barrier between me and it which can be removed? Or is painting -- color -- not my expression.. . ? I know definitely that if I had to choose between form and color as an objective, I would choose form without the least hesitation."
Wanda Gag's first prints were small etchings done in 1918, when she was a student at the Art Students League in New York. She and Adolph Dehn, a fellow Minnesotan who was a student with Gag at the Minneapolis School of Art, had both been awarded scholarships to study in New York.
 
The majority of Wanda Gag's prints were lithographs, printed by George Miller at his studio in New York. In both her books and her independent art, Gag insisted on quality. In her prints, this meant a full range of values, from highlights to the blackest of blacks.
 
Gag's prints and her illustrated book were typically separate spheres of activity. But in 1933, dissatisfied with the quality of images printed for her ABC Bunny book, Gag convinced her publisher to let George Miller print the plates as lithographs.
 
Wanda Gag also created wood engravings and relief (linoleum block) prints, which were printed by The Spiral Press in New York. To be able to print some of her own plates, Gag bought a small etching press for the studio at All Creation. The printmaker Howard Cook and his wife visited Gag in the spring of 1932, and together they printed etchings from metal plates she had prepared.
 
 
Draw to Live and Live to Draw: Prints and Illustrations by Wanda Gag (1893 - 1946)
 
Wanda Hazel Gag (rhymes with "log") was a pioneering female illustrator and printmaker of the 1920's - 40's. The exhibition presents her lithographs, drawings, sketches and watercolors, as well as original illustrations from some of her well-known children's books, including Millions of Cats. Exhibited with them are works by her father Anton, her sister Flavia, her brother Howard, and prints by some of the artists she associated with after leaving Minnesota in 1917. The exhibition is organized around four themes: Bohemian Roots; Author and Illustrator; Free Thinker; and Nature Worship.
 
Wanda Gag's diaries were published under the title Growing Pains in 1940 and many of her letters were published in a catalogue of her prints, in 1993. Gag's writings reveal her as a free-spirited, independent woman, who saw her art as a way to connect with larger creative forces. She desired above all else to draw, and in 1910 at age 17, she wrote: "My own motto -r aw to live and live to draw."
 
Wanda's father Anton Gag was the son of a woodcarver who brought his family from Bohemia to Minnesota in 1873. Her mother's parents came from a town in central Europe only twenty-five miles from where Anton was born. Wanda and her six younger siblings grew up in a rich atmosphere of music, stories, art and Old World legends. Her father's example, combined with her own innate curiosity, skill and ambition, convinced Wanda that she was destined to become an artist.
 
Just before he died, Anton said to 14-year-old Wanda, "Was der Papa nicht thun kont, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen" -- what Papa has left undone, Wanda will have to do. She worked to keep the family and household together, put herself and her siblings through high school, and drew whenever she could. Within twenty years, the publication of her first children's book and exhibitions of her prints in New York made Wanda Gag a household name and a respected artist. By that measure, she had fulfilled her father's dying wish.
 
Wanda Gag's drawings and prints are distinguished by their use of dramatic shadows and highlights, as well as its sinuous, animated lines and shapes. Through her art, Gag wanted to produce unity and rhythm out of "all the helpless fringes and frayed edges of our groping lives," as she stated in 1921 in a letter to artist Adolphe Dehn. A successful show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1926 and the 1928 publication of her children's book Millions of Cats enabled her to give up work as a commercial artist and move to rural New Jersey where she continued to produce drawings, lithographs, and children's books until her death in 1946.
 
 
Credits
 
Draw to Live and Live to Draw: Prints and Illustrations by Wanda Gag is made possible in part by a grant provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
 
The exhibition is developed with the cooperation and assistance of the Children's Literature Research Collection/Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota; Mr. Gary Harms, Wanda Gag's grand-nephew, and his wife Dolly; the Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, Minnesota; the Wanda Gag House, New Ulm; and Julie L'EnFant, author of The Gag Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America.
 
The following individuals and institutions lent artworks to the exhibition:
 
Gary and Dolly Harms
Children's Literature Research Collection / Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota
Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, Minnesota
Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth
 
For more information, viewers are referred to the following published texts on Wanda Gag available in the Olive Anna Tezla Memorial Library on the museum's first floor:
 
Julie L'Enfant, The Gag Family: German-Bohemian Artists in America, Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 2002.
Wanda Gag, Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917, New York: Coward-McCann, 1940.
Audur H. Winnan, Wanda Gag: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
 
 
Bohemian Roots
 
Wanda Gag was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, to parents whose families had both immigrated from Bohemia, in central Europe. In the relatively conservative community of New Ulm, the Gag family was conspicuously liberal and artistic. Anton Gag was a painter, photographer, muralist and decorator, who encouraged all his children to draw and to appreciate music, literature and visual art. Lissie (Elizabeth Biebl) Gag and her parents immersed the Gag children in the folktales of the Old World, which later influenced Wanda Gag's illustrated books and some of her prints.
 
In her approach to her art and her life, Wanda Gag exemplifies common conceptions of the liberal bohemian artist. The word bohemian was popularized in France in the 1850s, to describe the artists, writers, musicians and actors who gathered in low-rent districts inhabited by nomadic Romani, or Gypsies. Today, it connotes non-mainstream, anti-establishment ways, or unconventional social or political viewpoints. Gag was free thinking, and politically and socially liberal, far ahead of her time. She presaged women's rights and feminism, sexual liberation, and the back-to-nature movements by almost fifty years.
 
When she was free of economic pressures, Wanda Gag moved to the country and crafted an earthy lifestyle. Referring to herself as a "gypsy," she dressed in comfortable, peasant-style clothing, sending fashion sketches to her younger sister Stella, who sewed them for her.
 
 
Author and Illustrator
 
Most people know Wanda Gag as an award-winning author and illustrator of children's books. Her first book, Millions of Cats, was published in 1928, making her a household name practically overnight. She authored and illustrated six other books, translated and illustrated Grimm's Fairy Tales, and in 1940, published her diaries under the title of Growing Pains. Her work as a professional writer and illustrator began when she sold stories, poems and illustrations to the Junior Journal, the children's supplement of the Minneapolis Journal, after her father's death in 1908. Later, Gag's commercial art included magazine, advertising and fashion illustrations.
 
As her own prints and drawings became known and admired, Gag often regretted the time she had to spend producing commercial work. Her books, however, provided a steady income, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They also provided an opportunity to write her own stories, including versions of beloved childhood folktales. Like Gag's prints and drawings, her book's illustrations, page layouts and overall designs utilize rhythm, flowing lines, patterns and strong black and white contrasts, to provide pacing and cadence. She carefully oversaw the entire process, from conception, to design and editing, to the final printing.
 
 
Nature Worship
 
Wanda Gag described three passions, in order of their importance to her: art, sex, and growing things. Her diaries reveal that she read Thoreau's Walden, Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soul, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass with great excitement. She looked to Van Gogh and Cezanne for inspiration. Gag's intellectual curiosity was vast, but ultimately nature itself, not art, was her greatest teacher. Artistic techniques and life experiences were a means to an end. Gag's goal was to create the images that matched her world view, her sense of natural order, rhythm, and connectedness.
 
All of Gag's prints and drawings, and even the few oil paintings she made, are created with flowing, curved lines, and the spaces between objects appear to be as important as the objects themselves. Her interiors use intense contrasts of light and shadow, and even inanimate objects like furniture and buildings seem capable of movement. Almost all of Gag's art is black and white, stressing the emotive qualities of line, value, and form over all else.
 
Gag was determined to live in the country, to leave New York City and the pressures of the commercial art world. To satisfy her urge to be surrounded by nature, Gag spent the summers of 1923-30 in rented houses in New Jersey and Connecticut. One of these was "Tumble Timbers," a ramshackle house in New Jersey, where she drew the plates for her first prints. In 1931, she bought a farm in Milford, New Jersey, naming the property "All Creation."
 
 
Free Thinker
 
Gag contributed drawings to numerous exhibitions supporting labor, union movements, and responses to totalitarianism and aggression in the years between the World Wars. Like many of the younger artists she met in New York, Gag's illustrations appeared in socialist publications like The Liberator and New Masses. As a result, she and other artists were watched by the government, and she has an extensive FBI file as a result.
 
Despite the liberal ideas reflected in the causes she supported, very few of Gag's images are overtly political. The 1936 lithograph Progress shows her disdain for the visual clutter of modern technology and product advertising in the natural landscape. In the Year of Our Lord, 1937, is a scene of death and destruction, the aftermath of war.
 
In her 1939 article I Like Fairy Tales, Gag spoke against war-like toys and radio programs, and for the active imaginations of young children: ". . . I believe it is just the modern children who need [Fairyland], since their lives are already overbalanced on the side of steel and stone and machinery -- and nowadays, one might well add, bombs, gas-masks, and machine guns."
 
Like her sense of the spiritual in nature, Gag's politics and ideology is embedded in the form of the art itself. Ahead of her time in many ways, Gag was an early feminist, a member of a progressive group of Greenwich Village artists in the 1920-30s, including Max Weber, Alfred Maurer, Arnold Blanch, William Gropper, Howard Cook, Yasio Kyunioshi, and Adolphe Dehn.
 
 
Wanda Gag wrote the following description of her procedure in preparing a lithograph for printing, in response to a request from Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT:
 
The Forge
 
This lithograph was done with brush-and-tusche and some crayon. Its texture consists of thousands of tiny strokes, and it took me several weeks to do it.
 
The subject is an old forge near Carversville, Pennsylvania. I was excited by the varied form of the tools and handwrought objects in it, many of which had obviously not been moved for a long time and had fallen into mellow patterns. Almost they were static elements in the picture, but not quite -- the dynamic zigzag of the saws created a center of energy which seemed to me to shoot out and by its force compel the more passive forms to take part in its rhythm. I set myself the problem of controlling these forces; to keep them moving without them flow out of the picture, to build them up into a sort of cadence.
 
Procedure:
 
1) From the rough, yet detailed drawing made on the spot, I went on to several more, striving each time for a more compact and compelling organization, and establishing the final values. In my work I do not rely on happy accidents; I know beforehand exactly what I want the final result to be and work consciously toward that goal. In this case, after solving all the problems to the best of my ability, I made a final drawing on tracing paper, traced its outlines with sanguine crayon, and transferred it to the zinc.
 
2) With the transferred lines as guides, I drew the main outlines very lightly on the zinc, using a #5 Korn lithographic pencil.
 
3) I warmed a small dish, rubbed Lemercier tusche around its inside, and added water to make a fairly dense wash. This was applied with a watercolor brush wherever crisp rich outlines or small solid masses were needed.
 
4) Next, the values were built up very gradually all over the picture with Korn lithographic crayon (#3 when the room was cool, #4 when warm).
 
5) Then came the ticklish part; heightening the darks with the tusche wash without creating a soggy black mess. This is especially risky on zinc, for, whereas such sections can be lightened up on stone by scrapping, no corrections can be made on zinc. I use a dry-brush technique in such a way as to leave a faint sparkle of zinc showing through.
 
6) Finally, I like to keep the lithograph around for at least a week "for observation," and for last minute touches. Studying it by twilight or looking at it in a mirror are valuable aides in the respect.
 
In Audur H. Winnan, Wanda Gag: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. Original typescript in the Children's Literature Research Collection / Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota.

 

(above: Wanda Gag, American, Snoopy (Snoopie) in Lewis Gannett's Garden (Cat in Garden), 1932-33, stone lithograph on paper, 8 5/16 x 10 15/16 inches. Gary and Dolly Harm Collection)

 

(above: Wanda Gag, American, Backyard Corner (Barnyard Corner), Tumble Timbers), 1930, stone lithograph on paper, 10 3/8 x 12 7/8 inches, ed. 100. Gary and Dolly Harm Collection)

 

 

(above: Wanda Gag, American, Winter Garden (Cats and Flowers), 1935. zinc plate lithograph on paper, 10 x 8 1/8 inches. Gary and Dolly Harm Collection)

 

Additional images from the exhibition

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