Wanda Gág Day!
“artist/obsession” entries over the last few weeks have been leading up to something, you are correct—this post. Today, the anniversary of her birth, is the day to celebrate the life and work of Wanda Gág: artist, writer, translator, feminist and very “Modern” woman.
I’d been doing some research: partly to refine her Wikipedia page (which had been anemic), partly for another project, but mostly because I find her to be a continuing inspiration to me in my artistic efforts.
When Wanda was 15 her father died and her mother sank into depression, Wanda became the de facto head of the household, seeing to the welfare and education of her six younger siblings even while attending art school. It’s a story told in her diaries, the autobiographical Growing Pains (1941). In 1917 she moved to New York where she found work in illustration while continuing her studies in drawing and printmaking.
Her sensual lithographs caused a sensation in the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1920s. Her circle of friends grew to include such luminaries as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keefe, Rockwell Kent, Diego Rivera and numerous other Modernists. She contributed a cover to the Leftist magazine The New Masses. From the mid 1920s to the late 1930s her prints were consistently honored in the AGIA's “50 Prints of the Year” collection. Her award-winning book for children, Millions of Cats, remains a benchmark in children’s literature, perpetually being rediscovered by new generations.
Gág lived two lives: one as a respected author of books for children, the other of a fiercely independent free-thinker. She was well aware of the dichotomy:
I often think, “what if my readers and various people who apparently think highly of me, what if they knew that I can feel love for more than one man at the same time, that for years there have been three men on my love-horizon, that I indulge in bizarre and esoteric love rites with my lovers! Would they, knowing this, consider me less good?” But I am good. I feel that, in respect to sex, I am pure, clean, ethical, GOOD, all through. ~ diary entry, March 19, 1941Wanda kept three lovers for many years, in an arrangement which, if not exactly comfortable at times, was apparently acceptable to those concerned. She felt that sex was vital to her creativity, but also that her lovers' needs would always be secondary to her artistic pursuits. She could be charming or confrontational, and was fiercely adamant in her feminist views. Carl Zigrosser, her gallery manager (who was also one of her lovers) wrote:
"She is an enigmatic person, a taut equilibrium of of many conflicting forces, caution and abandon, logical cerebration and jungle temperament, feminine sensibility and masculine ruthlessness, genuine humility and expansive egotism."The noted publisher and designer Egmont Arens, after reading her 1927 article in The Nation magazine These Modern Women: A Hotbed of Feminists, wrote:
“Be more explicit about your relationships with men. The way you solved that problem seems to me to be the most illuminating part of your career. You have done what all the other ‘modern women’ are still talking about.”Wanda was also an advocate of a “return to the land” lifestyle, growing her own produce and living as close to nature as possible, spending as much time as she could at her rural “estates”: a ramshackle house (Tumble Timbers, 1925-1930) and then a small farm (All Creation, 1931-1946), both in New Jersey.
Wanda designed her own clothes, translated numerous Brother Grimm fairy tales (translations still considered classic), and won several book awards. Her breakthrough book Millions of Cats (1927) has never been out of print. Wanda never had children of her own, she felt it would interfere with her art; she had already helped raise her siblings and knew well the sacrifice that entailed. A heavy smoker all her adult life, Wanda died of lung cancer at the age of 53 in 1946.
For more information about her adult life as an artist be sure to check out Wanda Gág: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Prints by Audur H. Winnan; it contains the only published excerpts from her later diaries. The best general biography of Gág is Karen Nelson Hoyle’s Wanda Gág, a Life of Art and Stories.
Images by Carl Zigrosser and/or Robert Janssen, circa 1925-1929, sketch by Wanda Gág, circa 1941