Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

29 DECEMBER, 2014

Pioneering Children’s Book Author, Artist, and Early Twentieth-Century Female Entrepreneur Wanda Gág Reimagines the Brothers Grimm

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A visionary take on classic stories that continue to give us “a tingling, anything-may-happen feeling… the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.”

Although the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have a long history of creative reimaginings — from quirky vintage interpretations by David Hockney in 1970 and Edward Gorey in 1973 to recent gems like Andrea Dezsö’s enchanting black-and-white illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful retelling of Hansel and Gretel — few have been as pivotal in the creative history as those by pioneering artist, author, printmaker, and translator Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946).

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1936, Gág — who would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak — was already an icon in her own right. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company.

But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as America’s first female artist — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was her visionary 1935 picture-book Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework — Gág’s retelling of a proto-feminist folktale she learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother — that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: 'A little bird sat in a tree.'

Hansel and Gretel: 'Hansel and Gretel followed gladly enough, and all at once they found themselves in a fair flowery clearing, at the edge of which stood a tiny cottage. The children stood hand in hand and gazed at it in wonder. 'It’s the loveliest house I ever saw,' gasped Gretel, 'and it looks good enough to eat.''

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle: 'It was just as though fairy fingers were at work.'

Gág began by reading the Grimm tales in their original German, “in order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories,” and although she at first had no intention of writing her own adaptation, she felt compelled to do so once she realized a literal translation rendered only a few “practically as fresh and lively as they were in the original,” but most “thin, lifeless and clumsy.” She considers her intent to preserve the peculiar magnetism of these stories, many of which are not exclusively German and are “composed by such widely different people as peasants and scholars.” (The story of Cinderella, she points out, “exists in one form or another in the folklore of many countries, such as the English, French, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Serbian and Egyptian.”) Gág writes:

I hoped it might be possible — and thought it worth trying — to carry over into the English some of their intimate me-to-you quality, and that comforting solidity which makes their magic more, rather than less, believable.

The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air — they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.

Cinderella

Cinderella: 'Shake yourself, my little tree, shower shiny clothes on me.'

Cinderella

Doctor Know-It-All

The Musicians of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen

She makes a special point of setting her adaptation apart from the then-popular simplified and sanitized versions of the originally gory Grimm tales. In a sentiment that J.R.R. Tolkien would come to second decades later in arguing that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman would echo in asserting that it is inadvisable to protect children from the dark, Gág writes:

True, the careless use of large words is confusing to children; but long, even unfamiliar, words are relished and easily absorbed by them, provided they have enough color and sound-value… A certain amount of “goriness,” if presented with a playful and not too realistic touch, is accepted calmly by the average child. In this way sanguinary passages can be rendered harmless, without depriving them of their salt and vigor.

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants: 'His way took him over a wide heath, and as he was riding along, he saw something in the distance which puzzled him. Was it a haystack? Was it a hill? He could not tell, but coming closer, he saw it was neither a hill nor a haystack. It was the big fat paunch of a big fat man who lay there on his back and gazed lazily at the sky.'

Six Servants: 'By and by they saw a pair of big feet stretched out on the ground. There were legs on the feet too, but they extended so far into the distance that it was impossible to see the full length of them. The Prince and The Fat One walked on, and now the calves, next the knees, then the thighs of those legs came into view. After a while they came to the man’s body and at last they reached his head.'

The Three Brothers

The Three Brothers: 'Then, just as the rabbit ran past them at top speed, he lathered the little animal’s chin and shaved it, leaving enough fur for a stylish pointed beard. All this time the rabbit had been running as fast as he could, and yet he wasn’t cut or hurt in any way.'

The Dragon and His Grandmother

The Dragon and His Grandmother

For all her prescience and genius, Gág makes one remark that renders itself misguided in history’s hindsight:

At fourteen I was still avidly reading fairy tales and hopefully trying out incantations; but in this sophisticated age of the movies, radio, tabloids, and mystery stories, one cannot set the fairy tale age limit over eleven or twelve.

In our era of renewed interest in fairy tales as a literary genre for grownups, it’s hard not to appreciate Gág’s advantageous imprudence — it is, after all, to the benefit of her own book that she was wrong about the age appeal if we modern grownups cherish it today. It makes one wonder, too, whether it is precisely this explosion of media — with so many more new forms since Gág’s heyday — that sparked a counterrevolutionary return to such older storytelling traditions. And it’s a comforting thought: So much is said today about the alleged death of books in the merciless hands of digital media — and yet here is one of the greatest storytellers of her era, making similar predictions about the dismal fate of her medium’s displacement by movies and radio, and being wonderfully wrong.

Clever Elsie

Clever Elsie

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'So the man stood and said, 'Wife, are you now Emperor?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: ''Wife,' said the man, and looked at her right well, 'are you now Pope?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'The man slept right well and soundly—he had done much running that day—but the wife could not sleep and tossed herself from one side to the other all through the night and wondered what else she could become, but could think of nothing higher. With that the sun began to rise, and as she saw the rosy dawn she leaned over one end of the bed and looked out of the window. And when she saw the sun coming up: 'Ha!' she thought, 'couldn’t I, too, make the sun and moon go up?''

Gág’s Tales from Grimm is irreplaceably and timelessly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with the little-known first edition of the Grimm tales, then revisit Gág’s terrific Gone Is Gone and this year’s best children’s books.

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23 DECEMBER, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Weird and Wonderful Nutcracker

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“It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.”

In addition to his beloved children’s books, Maurice Sendak vitalized the popular imagination with his equally innovative contributions to theater. In 1983, four years after he adapted Where the Wild Things Are for the stage, Sendak designed the set for the Pacific Northwestern Ballet’s production of Nutcracker. The iconic two-act ballet had originally premiered on December 18, 1892, with a score by Tchaikovsky and story based on Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 classic The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — but it was neither a critical nor a commercial success. And yet it went on to become one of the most culturally beloved and commercially successful productions of all time, as well as a singular object of secular worship and creative communion at Christmastime.

There has been no staging of the classic more imaginative and creatively daring than Sendak’s collaboration with PNB’s Founding Artistic Directors husband-and-wife duo Kent Stowell and Francia Russell — in large part because Sendak’s vision reclaimed and made even more wonderful Hoffmann’s essential weirdness, which the Dumas translation had cleaned up and tucked away for nearly a century. To Sendak, earlier versions of Nutcracker were invariably “smoothed out, bland, and utterly devoid not only of difficulties but of the weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece.”

So even though he at first turned down the theatrical project because its “fantastical subject mixed generously with children seemed, paradoxically, too suited” for his sensibility, he was eventually enchanted by it and dreamed up a set design with which audiences fell instantly in love, catapulting the fledgling ballet company into stardom. Sendak’s set emerged as so influential and beloved that it became a classic in its own right — so much so that when he died in 2012, PNB restaged the ballet and dedicated its entire season to the great author and artist.

A few months after the PNB production first premiered, Sendak reversed his usual direction of book-to-theater adaptation and illustrated the special companion volume Nutcracker (public library). Having brought the iconic E.T.A. Hoffmann characters to life on the stage, he now returned to his native medium — the page — which Sendak imbues with his signature gift for crafting a complex and realistic emotional experience within a wholly fantastical world that honors the light and darkness of the human experience in equal measure.

Even though Sendak’s illustrations for the book are beholden to the integrity of the Hoffman story, he is an artist who has built a career of folding his influences into his own wildly original work, beginning with his formative illustrations of William Blake, which remained a creative centerpiece for Sendak up until his final farewell to the world. To the Sendak fan, then, it is at once pleasantly unsurprising and wholly invigorating to spot among his Nutcracker illustrations both fragments of his existing creations and glimpses of his future ones: In one scene, a Wild Thing peeks from behind the turbulent horizon; the depiction of Hoffmann’s Mouse King throughout would return in near-replica a decade later in Sendak’s darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children’s book.

In the introduction to the book, Sendak recounts how his initial reservations about the project were resolved:

Most of my doubts and worries were put to rest when Kent and I met for the first time early in 1981 in New York City. I liked him immediately for not wanting me to do the Nutcracker for all the obvious reasons but rather because he wished me to join him in the leap into the unknown. He suggested we abandon the predictable Nutcracker and find a fresh version that did honor to Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and ourselves.

Sendak, a tireless champion of children’s ability to handle the dark, considers the chief redeeming quality of this sanitized take on the Hoffmann classic — Tchaikovsky’s defiant, visionary score:

Tchaikovsky … proceeded to compose a score that in overtone and erotic suggestion is happily closer to Hoffmann than Dumas. His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.

Were it not for his lifelong humility, Sendak might well have been talking about himself — for it was his own rare and genuine genius that elevated the Hoffmann classic, and the Tchaikovsky score, to a new dimension of greatness.

Complement Sendak’s Nutcracker with his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating books and the joy of reading and his illustrations for Tolstoy.

Illustrations courtesy of Crown Publishing Group / Penguin Random House

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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19 DECEMBER, 2014

Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

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A playful celebration of the magic of language.

As a lover of unusual alphabet books, I was gladdened by this year’s crop of particularly wonderful additions, including Maira Kalman’s imaginative design history primer, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag and Oliver Jeffers’s magnificent short stories for the letters, Once Upon an Alphabet. Joining them is Take Away the A: An Alphabeast of a Book! (public library) by writer Michaël Escoffier and illustrator Kris Di Giacomo — an irreverent exploration not only of the letters and their alphabetic order, but also of how they come together to form words and convey ideas. Each letter of the alphabet is removed from one word to produce another as the two are depicted in a humorous semi-sensical vignette of confused meanings. A weary pig and chicken hitchhike on the side of the road because without its M, their farm has suddenly gotten too far; a family of snails find themselves bewildered at the dinner table as their aunt loses her U and becomes an ant; a terrified chicken realizes that without the X, the two foxes staring it down become foes. What emerges is a playful celebration of language not as a dry, mathematical exercise in letter-organization but as a living organism, in which letters make meaning through a vast mesh of metaphorical associations driven by the imagination — the very faculty that is the hallmark of children’s minds.

Throughout the story, there is also a subtle, wistful lament about our relationship to animals, its only protagonists. A monkey sits atop a cash register, collecting change, because without his K, he makes money selling bananas; but monkeys — as well as their primate relatives, chimps — have a long and heartbreaking history of being abused as money-makers in the hands of humans, from circuses to labs to the illegal pet trade. Having lost their O, a party of four — a duck, a zebra, an antelope, and a wolf — are fur-clad at tea time; the cruel price of fur garments, of course, is always animal lives.

In another vignette, the polar bears lose their E and find themselves at the zoo, behind bars, as a human father and child ogle them while enjoying their ice cream, sold to them by a displaced penguin.

But rather than embitter the story, these subtleties only enrich and elevate it by offering possible topics of education and conversation so understated as to offer parents the choice of whether or not to gently broach these darker issues with the child-reader. What remains at the forefront is the irreverent sweetness of the story, full of fable-like characters — there is the wolf, and the fox, and the ant, and the mouse — who behave in delightfully unfablelike ways.

A touch of continuity tickles the masterful pattern-recognition machine that is the human mind at any age. I was especially charmed by the ample and imaginative cameos of the orange octopus, always cheeky, and the little white mouse, a perennial cautious bystander and occasional bold partaker in the quirky alphabetic adventures.

Take Away the A, which is sheer delight in its totality, comes from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion, maker of such timelessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday, and a strong presence among the year’s best children’s books.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion; photographs my own

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.