Thursday, September 18, 2014


Our society encourages artists to exaggerate their eccentricities.  Musicians, writers and graphic artists compete to distinguish themselves by dressing and behaving outlandishly.  A nice couple of bucks can be made from appearing as kinky and outrageous as possible.

Such poseurs are different from genuine eccentrics-- the ones who risk everything because they just can't help what they are.  The difference can be seen in the authenticity of their work.

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) the illustrator and author of important children's books, was one of the true eccentrics in American illustration.


The strong willed daughter of a Bohemian artist, Gag grew up in a remote corner of rural Minnesota.  Her  parents died when she was young, leaving her impoverished and responsible for her six younger siblings.  She fought to keep her family together, rejecting efforts to divide the children into foster homes.

Relying on just $8 per month from the county, Wanda scratched for pennies.  She sold little knicknacks and pictures to feed her young siblings.  She trained in St. Paul to become a professional illustrator but found the lessons too confining:
I cannot bear to think of following in the footsteps of others.  And this is what they are teaching us to do here in Illustration.  We are doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and everyone has a Leyendecker cover at their side which they consult and worship while working at their own sketch.
Wanda was intent on developing her own style, one that combined art and real life, so after providing for her siblings Wanda left Minnesota in 1917 to become an artist in New York City.  An early feminist and suffragist, Wanda was politically radical and artistically uncompromising.  She practiced "free love," believing that an active sex life was a wellspring for artistic creativity.  She developed a series of odd theories about nature, aesthetics and fertility. She designed and made her own clothes for an "artistic" look.

Shortly after her arrival in New York Wanda started doing illustrations for the communist newspaper, New Masses.

She began receiving steady commercial assignments but found them unfulfilling so she cut her commercial ties and rented a ramshackle home in the country (which she named Tumble Timbers). There she could work on her fine art without distraction.  (Also without heat, running water or bathrooms.  She ate food from her garden and cooked on a kerosene stove.  Her lean years in Minnesota had made her fearless about poverty.)

Wanda's drawing of Tumble Timbers

Wanda's drawing of her bed at Tumble Timbers, inscribed to her lover Carl

Her younger sister wrote a song poking fun at Wanda ("If she thinks its funny that you work for money / Don't blame her-- 'cause she's an artist!")

The stairway at Macy's


In 1928 Wanda hit it big with her first children's book, Millions of Cats, a deeply odd story about an elderly couple inundated with "millions and billions and trillions of cats."  They are ultimately saved when (spoiler alert) the cats kill each other over who is the prettiest.  The drawings and hand lettered text are in Wanda's distinctive voice, very unusual for the period.

My favorite book by Gag is her even more peculiar story, "The Funny Thing," in which a strange dragon-like "aminal" eats the dolls of little children until a weird baby faced man named Bobo (who lives in a cave) persuades the aminal to eat "jum-jills" (a food that Bobo invented from seed puddings and nut cakes) instead.  The aminal likes them because they make his tail grow longer (see illustration below, in which Jum-jills are rolled into balls and fed to him by birds).


If Wanda had any commercial sense she probably would have written sweet, condescending books for children but that was not in her DNA.   She said, "I aim to make the illustrations for children's books as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition."  Lo and behold, children recognized her authenticity so her books have remained classics for over 80 years.

With her success, Wanda was able to move from Tumble Timbers to a new home she called "All Creation" but her fortune did not change her personality.  In 1941 she confided to her diary,
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?
 In her extensive private diaries Wanda spoke of sex joyfully but in euphemisms, calling it "treetops" or "experiences of a non-Euclidean variety."

Wanda with two of her lovers, Earle Humphreys and Adolph Dehn.  Apparently, her strong personality persuaded men to agree to these sharing arrangements.
Compare Wanda's secret diaries, and the price she paid for her nature, to the easy license for today's art celebrities such as Currin or Koons. Artists are coaxed and coddled to strive for eccentricity now. They have become wealthy flaunting the kind of weirdness that helped keep Wanda impoverished. Gag's drawings can't compete with the slick production values or technical skill of today's art but I find her genuine eccentricity a far more rewarding human experience.


Donald Pittenger said...

She's quite a discovery, David. I never read her books when young. Didn't read any to my own kids. That's because I hadn't learned of her till now.


Where or how did you discover her and what was your source of all that juicy detail? You seldom fail to amaze me.

One more thing. Was "Gag" really her family name?

Marie said...

Thank you so mucc for sharing, definitely must find her books now and learn more about her life.

MORAN said...

With those brains and looks she's hot!

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I knew and loved Gag's books when I was little. When I read them to my own children I was newly struck by how deeply goofy the plots and drawings were. So I tracked down Julie L'Enfant's comprehensive book, "The Gag Family" (2002 from the Afton Historical Society Press).

The family name was spelled Gaag in Bohemia, but was changed to Gag in 1873 when Wanda's parents arrived in America. L'Enfant's very good book tells you where all of Wanda's diaries are stored today.

Wanda began her diaries when she was trying to keep track of the finances for her orphaned family. She found an old ledger and started listing her nickels and pennies but, L'Enfant writes, "her vibrant inner life spilled over and the ledger became a copious diary."

Marie-- Thanks very much for letting me know, I appreciate it.

MORAN-- Well, she clearly dazzled a lot of men.

Richard said...

The "New Masses" cover looks very much like the punk zines of the 70s/80s/90s. I wonder if they were aware of her work.

Laurence John said...

i think she would have got on with Mervyn Peake.

Aleš said...

Haven't heard of Wanda Gag before, thanks.

David wrote "Such poseurs are different from genuine eccentrics"

I think there's also another difference. Gaga, Miley, etc. don't use eccentricity to promote an aura of artistry/geniosity which would consequently add some artificial value to their work in the eyes of the public (because the romantic myth of a weird, eccentric, depressed artist is still alive). You can notice these intentions among fresh artists from school, they may start by designing their appearance, mannerisms, etc to fit the public idea of an eccentric artist. (Didn't Mike Hoffman fabricate certain things in his biography so his life looked a lot more similar to Frazettas? The same health problems, etc.) So I think that these are the real poseurs in relation to genuine artistic eccentrics because they want us to think that they are authentic.

Lady Gaga or Miley on the other hand aren't interested in that, they are attention whores. Their eccentricity is just a circus and public knows it. No one is pretending that there's anything behind it, it's just a freak show like 19 century exhibitions of biological rarities.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Yes, a lot of that graphic work for New Masses and Simplicissimus and Jugend ended up being updated and recycled during that era. Part of the great cycle of life.

Laurence John-- I agree. The English have a wonderful tradition of eccentrics, but I don't think anyone could ever top the great William Blake.

Ales-- I am sure that Lady Gaga or Miley would protest that they do what they do for their "Art," not because they are attention whores. It's just that art has become more crass as audiences become jaded and artists have to fight their way through a torrent of electronic output.

Who would you consider their counterpart "attention whores" in the visual arts?

Donald Pittenger said...

Ah! Attention whores in the visual arts!

Let me leap into this potential discussion by tossing out a few names (and adding credits to my metaphor-mixing merit badge quest):


David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- Well, that's an interesting list. I would certainly agree with you about Dali (although I tend to forgive him for almost anything because of his marvelous quote, "The difference between me and a crazy person is that I'm not crazy.") I once heard Jeff Koons say that when he was a young boy, he read in the newspaper that Dali was coming to town, so Koons called Dali's hotel room and asked if he could come visit. Dali agreed and they had a long talk. Who knows what tricks of the attention whore trade were handed down in that meeting?

Kinkade I always figured was just an old fashioned whore for money. If he was a whore for attention, I'll think more highly of him.

Courbet you'll have to explain to me.

Donald Pittenger said...

I'm just trying to stir some action here. So Kinkade's on the list because, a few years ago anyway, I saw a Kinkade store in most of the various West Coast places I visited. Not terribly blatant, I'll admit, but they didn't name a store "Carmel Paintings of Light" for instance.

As for Courbet, we need to take into account that he operated in a different media world than what we're familiar with. So he sometimes used painting subjects as a means of self-promotion. Examples include "Bonjour Monsieur Courbet" (1854) and "The Studio of the Painter" (1855). Then there was the little matter of the Vendome Column's destruction during the Paris Commune and his role in that. Agreed, however, that he wasn't in the same class as Dali, Picasso and Warhol -- all masters of public relations in their different ways.

Sean Farrell said...

That's a lot of books still in print with 4 1/2 and 5 star ratings.

It must have been fierce having a family of responsibilities thrust upon one in a place of such harsh winters and in what one might imagine was a rickety farmhouse. The winters in Minnesota are cold and long enough to be trying even in current times in comfortable homes.

Fiercely independent people may be very attractive, even charismatic, but to be ripped from the underpinnings of a childhood, social order and dependency at such a young age, it's no surprise that she developed a near feral sense of independence. She probably had to tell a lot of stories to comfort the minds of her younger siblings.

I heard it said somewhere that a young person may feel betrayed by a parent who dies young. There's enough here without having to speculate, though it is tempting to do so. I mean, even without the communist or feminist ideology, one can imagine the extreme sensitivities and self protective mechanisms deeply embedded and always at the ready, working to compensate for the mentioned missing pieces.

There's something touching about this story, even tragically American. It is of course no surprise that her story is as it was, having had really no formation at all, no connection to anything in many ways.

The post brings to mind an old wonder as to which is most important, will and desire, education, or talent? To have the courage and belief in oneself or to wait for some development in one's work one or others deem worthy of belief according to some external professional measure? To have courage or to withdraw into being a permanent student?

Yes, those clothes are original, a little daffy and eccentric indeed.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: I forget to mention the ingredient of necessity as a creative force.

Nathan Fowkes said...

This is really great David. Love the insightful backstory of artists like Wanda. My students (and me too regrettably) all look too much at the same contemporary digital artists and try and figure out their bag of tricks.

Aleš said...

David wrote "Ales-- I am sure that Lady Gaga or Miley would protest that they do what they do for their "Art," not because they are attention whores."

Yes, but is their intention to pose as genuine artistic eccentrics? I think that the public differentiates between the romantic myth of a genuine eccentric artist and the pomo/pop/media eccentricity. I agree that genuine eccentrics are "the ones who risk everything because they just can't help what they are, which means that poseurs job is to imitate those characteristics that evoke the public's feeling of romantic myth of an eccentric artist. In order for eccentricity to work (to conform to the stereotype the public holds of artistic geniuses) it has to be perceived authentic.

But, the only eccentric thing about Gaga and Miley is a visual aspect of their public appearances. Their music is a catchy dance pop stuff for the masses, they seem normal in interviews, there is nothing weird going on in their private lives, they consider themselves to be down to earth family people, they are fighting for all the rights, they are not politically radical, their homes are typical luxury homes, ... (well, I'm not familiar with their lives and interviews that much because media here doesn't really cover them at all, so you can correct me) They don't manipulate us into thinking that their eccentricity comes from their inner, personal way of living and that it spreads out through everything they do because they just can't help what they are (that's what real poseurs try to imitate). Therefore all these controversial public appearances seem to be planed, thought out performances with a purpose to shock the public every now and then in order to get public attention again and again.

You are right that they consider their performances artistic (Gaga wrote papers about Hirst and Koons already while in school so she's familiar with how pomo works, she was probably aware that the meat dress already happened in the 80s) and they push the eccentricity of their performances to follow the rules of the pomo/showbusiness game. But I don't think that the eccentricity of their performances makes them authentically appear as genuine artistic eccentrics in the minds of the public.

I don't know, even tho I might be wrong in my observation, I hope it at least makes sense what I want to say. I'm not sure whether they are trying to pose as genuine eccentric artists (maybe to really naive teenagers), they simply seem to find the fact that fundamental characteristics of pomo art and characteristics of media promotion are the same (to shock the public) useful for their music business.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger--Even if we can't say there has been "progress" in the quality of art since the days of Courbet, at least there seems to be progress in the self-promotional skills of artists.

Sean Farrell-- I'm glad that you too found "something touching about this story." I think Wanda's was a great story. I believe all of the factors you mention play a role; it also made a difference that Wanda learned at a formative stage that she could survive on almost nothing. She didn't feel dependent on all of the comforts that others sold their souls to acquire.

Nathan Fowkes-- Thanks for your comment. Yes, I've always found it surprisingly fruitful to look over he next hill.

Aleš-- I have to confess that I don't know enough about the personal lives of Gaga and Miley to draw definitive conclusions. I got close enough to detect a certain aroma and turned back. That's very interesting that "Gaga wrote papers about Hirst and Koons," two highly successful media manipulators. It just shows how way leads unto way.

Aleš said...

Yes, David, she went to Tisch School of the Arts and "composed essays and analytical papers on art, religion, social issues, and politics" including a "crazy thesis, like 80 pages on Spencer Tunick and Damien Hirst, great pop artists”. She spoke about this as if it was “research” for her own future, some idea of herself that was percolating with music and art and sex and celebrity." She talks in interviews about theater (Robert Wilson), meditative performance discipline (Marina Abramovič) and commercial art that's viable as fine art (Koons) as her holy trinity.

Sean Farrell said...

"She didn't feel dependent on all of the comforts that others sold their souls to acquire."
David, an excellent point worth serious reflection. Wanda's story is fantastic and your comparison to modern eccentrics is also thought provoking.

Regarding Koons, his mockery of sentimentalism and innocence is not only painfully obvious, but heartless and deadening. It's cruel to mock innocence or the knick knacks of some kindly old lady. It's a form of visual hatred, accented by some kind of weird little giggle.

It's not surprising that some of the wealthiest people in the world, themselves rendered indifferent by endless indulgence and ingratitude, find affinity with the emptiness, cruelty and disconnect communicated by his work.

His work is an affront to all human effort in history and for this reason too, his work would appeal to those who believe we have moved on from history.

Anonymous said...

Hi, longtime lurker just posting to say what a great post this is. Things like this are why I keep reading. Thank you!

David Apatoff said...

Aleš-- Thanks for following up. It may be wrong to group these performers with traditional artists or musicians, when their discipline is more a hybrid of marketing and theater.

Sean Farrell-- Ah yes, reconciling Koons' quality with his huge success can be a challenging process. I agree with you that "some of the wealthiest people in the world" didn't get that way because of their artistic taste or sensitivity. I think the money they inject into the art market to further their status games poisons much of the landscape.

Anonymous-- What a nice thing to say. Thanks very much.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting post.

"experiences of a non-Euclidean variety."...made me chortle!

Strangely her work seems to have a" non-euclidean", quality...a sort of ripple through the forms making it feel, as the viewer, that one has had a bit too much gin and tonic. She obviously wasn't too keen on straight lines!

Julie Sutton Music said...

This is what Wanda writes in her diary at age 23:
On the way home we sat down in the little park for a while, and a little later he [Adolph Dehn] said rather quietly, "Wanda, may I kiss you?" I said, "No," and sprang from the bench. "Well, I won't," he said in the same almost quiet tone. I said, "I have a record to keep up." "A record?" "Yes I have never allowed it and won't allow it." "Never?" "Well, perhaps in about 4 or 5 years." I told him it would break my heart if anyone should ever break my record without my permission. When we should cans I said, "be nice and good this summer." He laughed a little and said, "I can't very well be otherwise for the next four months."

Also, Wanda's mother had not died yet at this point. So a lot of changes must've been about to happen in her life.

(Wanda Gag's published diaries, Growing Pains, MHS Press)

Julie Sutton Music said...

Wanda's diary entry after her first kiss, to Adolphe Dehn (he changed the spelling of his name) at age 23:

I had often wondered just what the "first kiss" would be like. I did not feel the thrill one reads about. I should say that the memory is more thrilly then the actual thing itself. There was a faint and almost indefinable feeling, though, which was connected with the thought that this was the only "first kiss" I could ever give or take and that I was experiencing it now for the first and last time. And right after that, with my head on his rough woolen coat, I should a few tears about it. I meant to go right up and tell Lucile but I haven't told her yet. I feel and act strangely after it and I wonder whether she has noticed it.

flee coop said...

This is a late entry. I discovered the book, "Na, Na, What's Gone is Gone!", as an 8-year-old boy. It was funny, but it's simplicity and illustrations are what intrigued me. I thought of it off and on through the years; which is one of the influences that led me to become an artist/illustrator.
My lady friend and her daughter have traveled and are enamoured with the Ukrainian and Russian literary culture.
I mention this in passing because a quick perusal of the book and names of the couple in the aforementioned book eluded me gor years -- asduming it wad Russian literature.
"Millions and Millions of Cats," is another literary acquisition I will extend to my granddaughters.
Wanda Gág is a true gem. The more Rita and I read about her, the more we become true literary devotees. I am retired with a background in journalistic public affairs; her daughter is a fledgling writer with a published short essay/prose.
I felt compelled to add this endorsement to whomever feels the same concerning Ms. Gág! Thank you.

pbasswil said...

Just so this very nice post doesn't spawn a 'gag-gle' of folks mispronouncing her name::
The German family name rhymes with 'dog'. In English you could spell it 'Gawg'.
As an adult she grew tired of people saying Gag as in "gag me with a spoon", so she started spelling it with an acute accent: Wanda Gág.
In case that doesn't render properly in people's browsers, that's an 'a' with a line above which tilts up to the right.

Here is a download-able .pdf file of her enchanting youthful diary, Growing Pains. You'll fall in love with her, promise!


I true artist. What an oddly beautiful story. The eccentricity was as much a part of her art as the brushes. My uncle Hugh Harmon was something like her - he worked in the early cartoon industry when it was considered by many people to be too technical. He created the first early live action/cartoon shorts and was a friend and early mentor to Walt Disney. He lived in a little red cabin off of Mulholland Drive in CA and simply dropped out of the industry because the studios couldn't see nor afford his vision of what animation could be. Eccentric, uncompromising and brilliant and like Wanda Gag, eventually ignored by the industry. As a child I used to visit uncle Hugh who would tell me wonderful stories while his son mike and I would play at his feet. Those were joyful days for us and him - his poverty never made any difference. Like Wanda, he lived in a world that was brimming with ideqs, visions, amazing things. Things that no one else could imagine the same way. Thanks for a poignant but ultimately happy story.