Brain Pickings

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.

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.





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What It Really Takes to Be an Artist: MacArthur Genius Teresita Fernández’s Magnificent Commencement Address

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“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

In 2005, artist Teresita Fernández — one of the most original and visionary sculptors of our time, whose work appears in the bewitching monograph Blind Landscape (public library) — received one of those legendary phone calls from the MacArthur Foundation. The mysterious caller informed her that the foundation’s secret committee had awarded the coveted MacArthur Fellowship — a generous $500,000 grant, with no strings attached, given solely so that the recipient can continue pursuing her or his creative work.

In May of 2013, two years after her appointment to President Barack Obama’s Commission of Fine Arts, Fernández delivered a spectacular keynote address to the graduating class at her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. Titled “On Amnesia, Broken Pottery, and the Inside of a Form,” the speech is a fine addition to the greatest commencement addresses of all time and a masterwork of the “connected irrelevance” that characterizes MacArthur “geniuses.” It is also an invaluable trove of hard-earned wisdom on the creative life, with great resonance for all stages of life. Annotated highlights below.

On the usefulness of “useless” knowledge, how we really learn about life, and the true seed of creative work:

For some inexplicable reason, we seem to believe most strongly not in the actual formal lessons, but rather in those details that get into our heads without our knowing exactly how they got there. Those pivotal lessons in our lives continue to work on us in subtle, subterranean ways.

This kind of amnesia is life’s built-in way of making sure you filter out what’s not very important. You graduate today after years of hard work, immersive years of learning, absorbing, processing, accumulating, cramming, finishing, focusing. There are no more reasons, really, to even make art unless you really truly want to. Of all you learned you probably don’t need to remember most of the technical or theoretical information, as that’s all easily accessible with a quick search. And what you will remember will have less to do with the past and more to do with how it triggers reactions for you in the present. Oddly enough, what we involuntarily do retain is meant to help us move forward. This forthcoming amnesia that awaits you is just another kind of graduation, another step in a lifetime of many graduations.

You are about to enter the much more difficult phase of unlearning everything you have learned in college, of questioning it, redefining it, challenging it, and reinventing it to call it your own. More than in any other vocation, being an artist means always starting from nothing. Our work as artists is courageous and scary. There is no brief that comes along with it, no problem solving that’s given as a task… An artist’s work is almost entirely inquiry based and self-regulated. It is a fragile process of teaching oneself to work alone, and focusing on how to hone your quirky creative obsessions so that they eventually become so oddly specific that they can only be your own.

Teresita Fernández: 'Fire,' 2005

She recounts being fascinated by an ancient Greek ostracon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — a piece of broken pottery or stone, engraved with a message, often used as a voting ballot — and how it reveals the fragmentary nature of creativity:

I was enamored with the idea of how what seemed broken, discarded, useless was transformed into a meaningful gesture… We are conditioned to think that what is broken is lost, or useless or a setback, and so when we set out with big ambitions we don’t necessarily recognize what the next graduation is supposed to look like. Unlearning everything you learned in college is just an exercise in learning to recognize how the fragments and small bits lead to something that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Echoing Nietzsche’s magnificent case for the value of difficulty, Fernández offers a wonderfully fresh perspective on failure amid a culture mired in “fail forward” clichés:

In Japan there is a kind of reverence for the art of mending. In the context of the tea ceremony there is no such thing as failure or success in the way we are accustomed to using those words. A broken bowl would be valued precisely because of the exquisite nature of how it was repaired, a distinctly Japanese tradition of kintsugi, meaning to “to patch with gold”. Often, we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the repair and make it “good as new.” But the tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to “good as new” and instead employ a “better than new” aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself. Here lies that radical physical transformation from useless to priceless, from failure to success. All of the fumbling and awkward moments you will go through, all of the failed attempts, all of the near misses, all of the spontaneous curiosity will eventually start to steer you in exactly the right direction.

Fernández extends gentle assurance that art, like science, is driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance”:

In those moments when you feel discouraged or lost in the studio, or when you experience rejection, rest completely assured that what you don’t know about something is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to understand. In many ways, making art is like blindly trying to see the shape of what you don’t yet know. Whenever you catch a little a glimpse of that blind spot, of your ignorance, of your vulnerability, of that unknown, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to stare at it. Instead, try to relish in its profound mystery. Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.

With a bow to Georgia O’Keeffe’s undying wisdom on what it really means to be an artist — “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” — Fernández echoes Thoreau and exhorts us to break the tyranny of external definitions of success:

We live in a meritocratic society, where accomplishments are constantly being measured externally, where forms are always read from the outside, where comfort and lifestyle are often mistaken for success, or even happiness. Don’t be fooled. Our ideas regarding success should be our own, and I urge you to pursue it simultaneously from both the inside and the outside… As artists, it will be especially difficult to measure these ideas of what success may be because you have chosen a practice that is entirely dependent on being willing to possibly fail, over and over again regardless of any successes that do come your way.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s unforgettable moment of choosing creative integrity over outward success — “I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success.” — Fernández adds:

Success is just another form, with both an inside and outside.

For the most part people are aware of what the outside of success looks like… Outside success always seems to look terribly glamorous, and every once in a while it can be. But it still never means all that much, and it still never makes the work of the work any easier — if anything, it makes it a little harder because the stakes get higher; the possible humble failures become less private and more visible and more cruelly judged.

With assuring vulnerability, she reflects on her own experience of befriending that frightening moment after the completion of a major project, which she likens to a kind of creative hangover:

A kind of panic sets in the very next day, an urge to get into the studio because you know you have to start all over again, building something from nothing, seeking the company of those trusted beneficial failures, waiting for those absurd internal dialogues with your own gang of voices. It’s not a very glamorous scenario. But this is precisely what internal success looks like. It is visible only to yourself and while you can trick the rest of the world into thinking you are a good artist, you can never really convince yourself, which is why you keep trying. If you’re lucky and motivated enough to keep making art, life is quiet, you get to work at what you love doing, happily chipping away at something, constructing something, adjusting to a cycle of highs and lows and in betweens, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it for two years or 50 years, the patterns remain exactly the same. The anxiety continues to set in, the doubts creep in, the baby steps towards mending fragments starts all over again, the cautious urge to peek between the cracks is there. When you find yourself in that place, that’s when you’ll know that the inside is driving the outside.

[…]

That hunger, that desire for success is nothing more than a fear of failure… And the odd thing is that when you are actually succeeding, it tends to be quiet and comes always quite unannounced and without a lot of fanfare. You will, in fact, be the only person who ever really grasps or recognizes the internal successes. The work of the work is visible only to yourself.

Work from Teresita Fernández's 2014 MASS MoCA solo show, 'As Above So Below'

At the end, Fernández offers graduates ten practical tips on being an artist that have been helpful on her own creative journey — but they double as an ennobling moral compass for being a decent human being in any walk of life:

  1. Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studio practice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
  2. Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
  3. Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
  4. Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
  5. Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
  6. When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
  7. Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
  8. You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
  9. Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
  10. And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.

Indeed, Fernández’s parting point is also her most poignant — a reminder that being human is the wider circle within which being an artist resides, and that our art is always the combinatorial product of the fragments of who we are, of our combinatorial character:

Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures — all of these components will also become the raw material for the art you make.

Complement with Debbie Millman’s fantastic commencement address on courage and the creative life and Jeanette Winterson on how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit.

Thanks, Denise

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.





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Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read

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How to “glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tysonchampion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers. One reader posed the following question: “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” Adding to history’s notable reading lists — including those by Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Carl Sagan — Tyson offers the following eight essentials, each followed by a short, and sometimes wry, statement about “how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world”:

  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it

Tyson adds:

If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.

(What has driven it, evidently, is also the systematic exclusion of the female perspective. The prototypical “intelligent person” would be remiss not to also read, at the very least, Margaret Fuller’s foundational text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is even available as a free ebook, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, of course, the question of diversity is an infinite one and any list is bound to be pathologically unrepresentative of all of humanity — a challenge I’ve addressed elsewhere — so Tyson’s selections remain indispensable despite their chromosomal lopsidedness. My hope, meanwhile, is that we’ll begin to see more such reading lists by prominent female scientists, philosophers, artists, or writers of the past and present; to my knowledge, none have been made public as of yet — except perhaps Susan Sontag’s diary, which is essentially a lifelong reading list.)

Complement with Nabokov on the six short stories every writer should read, then revisit Tyson on genius and the most humbling fact about the universe.

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