Wanda Gág: An Appreciation¹
Reprinted in full from The Washington Print Club Quarterly
, Winter 2010-2011
issue, Vol. 46, No. 4.
Editor, The Washington Print Club Quarterly
SOME years ago at a sidewalk book sale I came upon a slim publication from a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service show, titled American Prints from Wood
². The book was old—1975, but what woodcut artist could have resisted it? I found it a satisfying catalogue and I wished I had seen the exhibition, for it included the whole panoply, seemingly, of significant American woodcut and wood engraving artists: Gustave Baumann, Werner Drewes, Fritz Eichenberg, Misch Kohn, Antonio Frasconi, Washington’s own Lila Oliver Asher, Leonard Baskin, and many others.
Franklin Stove, 1927, wood engraving, 5 x 6 15/16" (image),
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Dviision.
Image courtesy of the
Estate of Wanda Gág.
Among those others was Wanda Gág, with a single—and singular—wood engraving from 1927, entitled Franklin Stove
. When I came upon it, my immediate response was, “Oh, Wanda Gág. I’d forgotten about her,” and then I turned the page. I had known a few of her prints; I knew that she had written and illustrated some children’s books, most notably Millions of Cats
; and that was all that I knew then.
I kept the catalogue on my bedside table, and I kept returning to that print. I was attracted by Franklin Stove
because it seemed to represent both a high point of a particular school of American printmaking, and probably, I thought, the best of Wanda Gág’s print oeuvre. Eventually, I became curious enough about the body of her work to find and order her catalogue raisonné.³ and for a couple of months my bedtime readings were spent studying Gág’s work, not only her prints, but also her sketches, her drawings, her studies, her life, and even her writings. I found a treasure in that book: not simply interesting pictures, but a kindred artist, a sister as it were.
Wanda Gág was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, into a German-American immigrant family. Her father was an artist (a failed one, by some accounts) who died when Wanda was 15, urging her on his deathbed “to finish what Papa could not.” Wanda was the oldest of seven children, of whom only the sixth was a boy. In the difficult years that followed her father’s death, she and the older sisters managed to keep the family together while Wanda completed her high school education and even studied at Minneapolis School of Art for a couple of years. In 1917, she won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League and moved to New York City, the hub of her professional efforts for the rest of her life. Until her breakthrough show at Weyhe Gallery in 1927, she supported herself through free-lance advertising and fashion illustration, work that she disliked intensely.
Few artists are fortunate enough to avoid a conflict between what Gág called "Myself" (meaning her creative life) and the need to earn a living, but few have faced that choice as starkly as she. The success she made of her life is an object lesson in tenacity and optimism. In addition to being a printmaker and illustrator, she was a witty and articulate writer and a feminist (and a sexually assertive one). Although she supported some, at least, of her siblings for most of her life, she was one of the few artists of her time who survived the Depression without government support. And, not least, she was an artist who loved being an artist. There is much to admire in both her life and her work.
Stairway at Macy's, 1949-1941, lithograph in black on wove paper,
9 7/8 x 12 11/16" (image), Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art.
Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
What I admire about Wanda Gág’s art is, first, the balance she achieves between description and design. Even as late as 1927, that balance was more difficult to attain than it became later. American artists were still trying to absorb the principles of the Cubist movement; while they sensed that Cubism had effected a sea change in the art world, that change was little understood and only vaguely systematized. Gág, however, seems to have had—or developed—a vision that allowed her to stylize or distort her subjects without sacrificing description.4
This is a stylistic trait that characterizes much of the work of the American Regionalists, who were Gág’s contemporaries, especially that of Thomas Hart Benton, whose paintings and prints of rural life all throb or writhe with an instantly identifiable rhythm. Secondly, her work displays an absolute mastery of light and dark. Although Gág lamented throughout her career her inability to paint, her work provides ample evidence that she had no need of color. She was exquisitely sensitive to tone, whether descriptively to portray volumes and textures, or compositionally to create patterns, or expressively to convey moods. Her ability to combine those three functions within a single print is impressive, and has been instructive to me. Her media were monochromatic: lithograph, linocut, woodcut, wood engraving, and occasionally etching. Through those she expressed more than do most artists with oil and canvas and an entire palette of colors.
I also admire Wanda Gág’s subject matter and what she communicated through her choice of subjects. Her career spanned the period from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II (she died, untimely, in June 1946), a time of unprecedented social and political upheaval, and she was a known and respected printmaker, one of the lights of the New York art scene. Nevertheless, her subjects are as homely as her Midwestern roots: fireplaces, stoves, machinery (a rock crusher!), stairwells (at Macy’s!), plants (skunk cabbage!). She imbues these mundane material objects and scenes, however, with all the dark mystery and enchantment of a dragon’s hoard; and it is that marriage of the quotidian and the numinous that gives her work its power.
The Forge, 1932, lithograph in black on wove paper, 11 5/8 x 13 3/4" (image),
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, National Gallery of Art. Image courtesy of
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
And she worked
to achieve those effects. As I perused the several states of her prints, it occurred to me that she worked them more than do most of the woodcut artists I know—they would have stopped working when they arrived at Gág’s first state. Her eye was not only for the subject, but for ways to enhance the initial statement. That, too, was instructive. She was also a perceptive critic of her own work, a rare skill among artists of any kind. At one point, she wrote to a friend of her relief when she had recently finished a wood engraving that had required six (“if not more”) weeks of work, and then, recognizing that she had perhaps overworked the block, she commented, “but it’s not so hot. Just because of that, perhaps.” The engraving measured only about seven inches by five and a half (even granting the labor-intensive nature of wood engraving, she had still devoted an extraordinary amount of time to that small block). Who among us has such perseverance and the humility to admit that our effort is perhaps only an effort, not an achievement?
My admiration for Wanda Wanda Gág is not without reservations. I believe she would have been a difficult person to maintain a friendship with. Perhaps because she had perforce worked hard and cannily from a very young age, she tolerated behavior in herself that she would surely not tolerate in others. In the 1930s, for instance, when she was conducting an affair with a Dr. Hugh Darby, she invited him and his wife (also a doctor) to spend the weekend with herself and her sister Thusnelda: the wife slept in the house with Gág’s sister; the lover, in Gág’s studio. Not surprisingly, this arrangement is reported to have been a source of considerable embarrassment to Thusnelda.
It is possible, too, that on at least one level she considered herself to have failed: she felt that she never learned to paint, and her diary entries suggest that deficiency frustrated her. Only a few of her paintings have survived, and many of them do lack the astonishing power of her black-and-white prints. The human figure is also absent from her work, except in her book illustrations, where the figures are cartoons. She claimed that, after the years of supporting herself with fashion illustration, she could never enjoy drawing the figure. One wonders what she might have accomplished with that subject, considering her success with a rock crusher and a skunk cabbage.
Still, Wanda Gág enjoyed a career that was successful by any measure. Her work was more often than not included in the 1927-1944 Fifty Prints of the Year exhibitions sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts;5
she won many awards; she wrote (or translated) and illustrated a dozen books. And her work continues to inspire and instruct.
Max-Karl Winkler has been a printmaker, illustrator, and teacher in the Washington area since 1984. He is currently teaching drawing and relief printmaking in the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program.
1. ‑In preparing this essay, I have been indebted as always to Muffie Houstoun, editor of The Washington Print Club Quarterly, who has improved both my writing and my thinking about Wanda Gág. She also arranged a visit to the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, whose Curator of Fine Prints, Katherine Blood, gave us generously of her time and knowledge to examine the Wanda Gág works in their collection, and even photographed their impression of Franklin Stove for this article (and located the owner of the Wanda Gág estate, who kindly gave the Quarterly permission to reproduce it). The three of us spent a pleasant autumn afternoon studying a dozen works, not only the Franklin Stove wood engraving that first inspired this article, but several of Gág’s important lithographs, among which Lamplight (1929), The Forge (1932), Stairway at Macy’s (1940-1941), and Barns at Glen Gardner (1941-43) stand out. Remarkably, the 1927 Franklin Stove print is the only wood engraving in its Gág collection, which includes one of her rare paintings, Still-Life with Flowers (undated)—on sandpaper! The National Gallery of Art also has a small and important collection of Gág’s prints, and the Gallery’s Director of Visual Services, Peter Huestis, was especially helpful in facilitating permission to reproduce two of its Gág images—and in the process of doing so, introduced us to the graphic work of a contemporary of Gág, Canadian artist Edwin Headley Holgate (1892-1977), who likewise marries description and design.
2. American Prints from Wood: An Exhibition of Woodcuts and Wood Engravings Organized by Jane M. Farmer, Published for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1975.
3. Audor H. Winnan, Wanda Gág: A Catalogue Raisonné́ of the Prints, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
4. Wanda Gag’s diary entries include explications of her idiosyncratic theory of perception, which I, at least, have not fully understood. It appears that she believed objects are surrounded by a “halo” (today, perhaps, we would say “aura”), a quirk that illuminates much of the charm and uniqueness of her graphic style.
5. Founded in 1914, when the boundaries between graphic design and printmaking were porous, the American Institute of Graphic Arts was for many years very involved in printmaking; nowadays it focuses exclusively on graphic design.