Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Wanda Gág’

29 DECEMBER, 2014

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

By:

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.





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.

08 AUGUST, 2014

The ABC Bunny: A Sweet and Unusual Alphabet Book from 1934

By:

“X is for eXit — off, away!”

In 1934, six years after creating the oldest American picture-book still in print and a year before her brilliant proto-feminist children’s book, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág released The ABC Bunny (public library). Given my enormous soft spot for alphabet books and my deep admiration for Gág’s influential work, I was instantly taken with this Newbery Medal-winning vintage gem.

But perhaps most endearing of all is the fact that the project was a true family affair — written and illustrated by Wanda, it was hand-lettered by her brother Howard and featured a music score composed by her sister Flavia. As such, it carries a subtle meta-reminder of how important it is not only to equip young minds with, say, the mechanics of the alphabet but also to envelop them in the kind of parenting that nurtures creativity and encourages children to develop their different abilities. (For another famous creative family, see Virginia Woolf’s collaboration with her teenage nephews, the sons of her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, as well as Bell’s woodcuts for one of Woolf’s lesser-known collections.)

Pair The ABC Bunny with Gág’s Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework, then treat yourself to more lovely and unusual alphabet books by Edward Gorey, Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, and more Edward Gorey.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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.

08 JULY, 2014

The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework: A Proto-Feminist Children’s Book from 1935

By:

A visionary fable about equality delivered through a comic Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

In 1928, nearly a century before the internet cat memes reached their crescendo, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág won the prestigious Newbery and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards for her children’s book Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture-book still in print. But Gág’s visionary storytelling presaged social phenomena far more consequential than Buzzfeed. Her most prescient book was her penultimate one, Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (public library) — a proto-feminist story published in 1935, two decades before the second wave of feminism and more than 75 years before Lean In.

Gág, who inspired beloved artists like Maurice Sendak and who did for picture-books what Nellie Bly did for journalism, tells an old fable-like story relayed to her by her grandmother — a witty parable about gender equality in work and housework, written mere months before George Orwell contemplated the subject.

Wanda Gág

Gág tells the story of the peasant Fritzl, who works the fields all day long, and his wife Liesi, who tends to their humble house:

They both worked hard, but Fritzl always thought that he worked harder. Evenings when he came home from the field, he sat down, mopped his face with his big red handkerchief, and said: “Hu! How hot it was in the sun today, and how hard I did work. Little do you know, Liesi, what a man’s work is like, little do you know! Your work now, ’tis nothing at all.”

“’Tis none too easy,” said Liesi.

“None too easy!” cried Fritzl. “All you do is to putter and potter around the house a bit — surely there’s nothing hard about such things.”

To prove her point, Liesi suggests that they swap roles for a day, so that Fritzl can “putter and potter around” for a taste of her life. Naively, he agrees.

At the crack of dawn, Liesi sets out for the fields with a jug of water and a scythe, while Fritzl begins “frying a string of juicy sausages for his breakfast.”

But as he holds the pot over the burning fire, he is lured by fantasies of a cold glass of cider. And so begins his Rube Goldberg machine of domestic disaster.

When he heads to the cellar to help himself to some cider, the dog runs off with the sausages. Fritzl chases after it, only to shrug “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” in defeat. He returns to the house, only to find that he had forgotten to the bung back in the barrel and the cider had flooded the cellar.

“What’s gone is gone,” he sighs once more and moves on to his next task — churning butter. Stationing himself under a tree, where his little daughter Kinndli is playing in the grass, Fritzl begins to churn as hard as he can, only to realize he had forgotten to give the cow water on this hot summer day.

Once at the barn, he figures he should also feed her, but instead of taking her to the meadow, decides to keep her close by and let her graze on the grassy roof of the house, which is built on the side of a small hill.

But just as he returns to the churning station, he sees little Kinndli climbing on, then falling off the churn, spilling all the half-churned cream onto herself. Already exasperated, Fritzl leaves the little girl to dry in the sun and moves on to another urgent errand — making dinner for Liesi, as the day had progressed and she would be home soon. Gág writes:

With big fast steps Fritzl hurried off to the garden. He gathered potatoes and onions, carrots and cabbages, beets and beans, turnips, parsley and celery.

“A little of everything, that will make a good soup,” said Fritzl as he went back to the house, his arms so full of vegetables that he could not even close the garden gate behind him.

As he stations himself in the kitchen to begin cutting and paring away — “How the man did work, and how the peelings and parings did fly!” — he hears a strange sound coming from above. The comedy of errors is about to climax: To keep the cow from strutting on the roof, Fritzl ties a rope around her belly, drops it through the chimney, and loops the other end around his own waist.

He merrily continues making the soup, when suddenly…

Before long, there came Liesi home from the fields with the water jug in her hand and the scythe over her shoulder.

But Hulla! Hui! What was that hanging over the edge of the roof? The cow? Yes, the cow, and halfchoked she was, too, with her eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out.

Liesi lost no time. She took her scythe — and ritsch! rotsch! — the rope was cut, and there was the cow wobbling on her four legs, but alive and well, heaven be praised!

Liesi walks over to the garden only to find the gate open, with all their pigs and goats and geese gone. Nearby, she spots her little daughter sticky with semi-dried butter. She sees the dog laying in the grass, looking “none too well” from his mischievous sausage feast. She discovers the cellar flood, with cider “all over the floor and halfway up the stairs,” and the kitchen, covered with produce peelings and filthy pots.

Finally, she walks toward the fireplace — anyone with even a basic understanding of physics can guess what happened to poor Fritzl once the cow was set free from the rope:

Hu! Hulla! Hui What was that in the soup-kettle? Two arms were waving, two legs were kicking, and a gurgle, bubbly and weak-like, was coming up out of the water.

“Na, na! What can this mean?” cried Liesi. She did not know (but we do — yes?) that when she saved the cow outside, something happened to Fritzl inside. Yes, yes, as soon as the cow’s rope was cut, Fritzl, poor man, he dropped down the chimney and crash! splash! fell right into the kettle of soup in the fireplace.

Wág’s refreshing inversion of gender stereotypes shines once more as Liesi plays the knight-in-shining-armor part and rescues her husband from this domestic nightmare of his own making, pulling him out of the pot “with a cabbage-leaf in his hair, celery in his pocket, and a sprig of parsley over one ear.”

The story ends with an exchange partway between morality tale and political statement:

“Na, na, my man!” said Liesi. “Is that the way you keep house — yes?”

“Oh Liesi, Liesi!” sputtered Fritzl. “You’re right—that work of yours, ’tis none too easy.”

“’Tis a little hard at first,” said Liesi, “but tomorrow, maybe, you’ll do better.”

“Nay, nay!” cried Fritzl. “What’s gone is gone, and so is my housework from this day on. Please, please, my Liesi — let me go back to my work in the fields, and never more will I say that my work is harder than yours.”

“Well then,” said Liesi, “if that’s how it is, we surely can live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.”

And that they did.

All these decades later, Gone Is Gone remains an absolute delight, layered and lovely, as does the rest of Wág’s work. Complement this particular gem with Susan Sontag on how gender role stereotypes limit us.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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.