Pioneering Early-Twentieth-Century Artist and Creative Entrepreneur Wanda Gág on Our Two Selves and How Love Lays Its Claim on Us
“There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves.”
By Maria Popova
At the age of fifteen, long before she became a successful artist, a Newbery- and Caldecott-honored children’s book pioneer, and an influence for creative legends like Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946) began keeping an illustrated diary, eventually published as Growing Pains (public library). Although it covers her adolescence and early twenties, it is anything but teenage in character — not in the least because by the time the word “teenager” was coined, Gág was already on her deathbed. Rather, it is the precocious, deeply alive record of how a young woman dragged herself out of poverty by her own talents and her dogged dedication, and became a great artist and creative entrepreneur in an era before women could even vote. (That she would eventually write and illustrate a glorious proto-feminist children’s book only adds to her emboldening story.)
The early portions of the diary capture the formative experiences of Gág’s childhood and adolescence — growing up in poverty and selling her art to earn money for the family (“Made 115 place cards in about 2 days. Wish I could keep the money and buy dresses with, but what’s the use of dreaming all the time?”); living with constant hunger, which she notes only as a matter of fact rather than a complaint (“Ate only doughnuts and coffee for supper to-day.”); being the eldest of seven siblings, of whom she took care after her father died and her mother fell gravely ill (“Mama was in bed and we had the worst time getting dinner and giving the kids their things.”); wanting nothing more than a steady education, but having to drop out of school over and over to take care of her siblings and earn income for the family (“Oh dear, I wish I could earn a pile of money so that I could draw a little for myself, and so that I could go to school without having to think of quitting. I can’t see why some kids don’t like school. I can scarcely wait for the Monday’s.”); being unable to afford even the very notebooks necessary for the continuation of the diary, and being immeasurably elated when she finally saved up enough (“Oh glories, joys, beauties, victory, etc. etc. etc! I’ll get a new diary! Talk of being glad!”).
But despite the extreme practical hardship, Gág grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged and valued art — not merely as something to sell, but as something to celebrate in the soul.
Gág writes of her artist-father, Anton, who died a few months before she started the diary but remained an enormous spiritual influence for the remainder of her life:
For his livelihood, he decorated houses and churches; but on Sundays, for his inner satisfaction, he painted pictures in his attic studio. We children had learned early how to behave when someone was “making something” and were sometimes allowed in his studio while he painted there. I liked this — there was a silent, serious happiness in the air which, although I had no words for ti then, I recognized as the ineffable joy of creation. I had already experienced this exaltation myself at times, so I knew that on Sundays my father was happy in his soul.
In 1913, thanks to years of hard work and the help of friends, Gág fulfilled her dream of going to art school and enrolled in The Saint Paul School of Art, where she was offered a scholarship. It was a transformative experience in many ways, both in developing her skills as an artist and in finding herself as a person.
In the spring of 1914, several years before Freud first formulated his notions of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, 21-year-old Gág developed and became preoccupied with a peculiar theory that personhood consists of two parts always tussling with each other for dominion — a surface “Me,” unstable in its constantly fluctuating needs and desires, and an underlying “Myself,” the stable representation of one’s deepest truth. The main struggle of life, she intuits, is that of integration between these conflicting aspects of the self.
In a diary entry from April of that year, she captures with extraordinary introspective insight the interplay of these two parts in herself:
Myself, you see, stands for my better judgement, for my permanent self, and Me is my unstable self, the part that is continually changing. Myself is the part of me that sees its way out of my “self-to-me” arguments…; and Me is that part that writes things in diaries in angular words, angular phrases and angular thoughts.
She illustrates this with a small sketch in the margin and writes:
Like this: — Myself is inside, and Me is trying to sort of fit around the outside only it can’t very well because it’s so angular, you see, and can do no more than touch myself and feel that myself is there.
Myself laughs, sometimes mockingly and sometimes indulgently but encouragingly withal, at my poor attempts to express Myself. I do not mind its laughing, for some day I hope to become one with myself.
She captures this inner divide in action as she chronicles her day:
I was kept busy sketching until almost twelve. I was a fool to do it for I was very tired, but I (that is, Me, you know) am often a fool. Myself made only feeble remonstrances for at times I am stronger than it, and besides It seems at times to believe in letting Me do as I please so that I can learn by actual experience.
With the very ambivalence for which this dichotomy of self is culpable, she adds:
In a way I am rather glad I discovered this Me and Myself business because it seems to explain so many things, but on the other hand I don’t like it at all for I can just see where it will jump into my thoughts and conversation all the time.
In June of 1914, Gág considers how this plays into the dynamic of self and other:
I always have a feeling — I may be mistaken of course — that some people think that I am just a common heart breaker — or else a girl who is serious about her art, but one with everyday feelings about love and life and her fellow beings. They do not know that art to me means life. It may sound egotistical for me to say so but I know that I have seen, and see every day, a beautiful part of life which the majority of them never have and never will see. It isn’t egotistical when you think it over — I deserve no credit for that. It is my heritage. My father had that power before me, but because he was unselfish it could not be developed as much as Himself wanted it to be. So he handed it to me, and it’s my duty to develop it. If I ever turn out anything worth while I will not feel like saying that “I did this,” but “My father and I did this.” Aside from that, I will have to include all Humanity to a greater or lesser extent too; and the Great Power that names the Myselves in things will be the most important thing, of course.
The ebb and flow of daily living, Gág’s model suggests, keeps eddying the “Me” part; but life itself pulses through the “Myself” and registers in its deepest trenches, to be transmuted into art after a period of unconscious incubation. She illustrates this with great subtlety in relaying an exchange with a young suitor, Armand, as they go to the fair in early May and he begins pointing out parts of the landscape to her:
Armand sometimes thinks I don’t see as much of my surroundings as I do, simply because I don’t say anything about them. I usually pack them up silently and store them away within me. There are a number of scenes that I saw that day, that I disposed of that way and sometime, perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps in a few months, I will use them — or maybe it will take a few years until they will really go thru Myself so that they will have their fullest effect on me.
A few weeks later, in a passing aside, she adds a related remark that is one of the most poignant lines in the entire diary:
I think people always consider me such a child because I have done my living in silence.
This tug-of-war between “Me” and “Myself,” for Gág, is often one between emotion and reason — especially when it comes to love, and especially in her particular relationship with Armand, plagued by an asymmetry of affections: she, reluctantly besotted; he, insufficiently interested and manipulative of her affections, giving her just enough to fuel the anguishing infatuation but not so much as to remove the anguish. (A dynamic familiar to anyone who has suffered the cruel ambivalence of a lover.) By the end of May, Wanda and Armand have confronted the issue and “agreed to keep [the] relationship on a Platonic basis.” (Again, a reluctant pseudo-solution familiar to anyone who has ever had intense romantic feelings for a partner incapable or unwilling to reciprocate them.)
In one particularly turbulent entry from May 25, Gág chronicles the rapids of feeling violently dragging her “Me” in its fast-flowing stream of changing emotions:
It is queer — I have gone thru so many stages during the last three days. Saturday morning I was bewildered, at about noon I was happy, by evening I was wretched. By Sunday noon I could smile, in the afternoon I was happy and could laugh. This morning I was mischievous, this afternoon deliciously wicked, right after supper reckless, and right after that wretchedly serious. And now I have come back to the beginning and am bewildered again.
Just this minute I almost hate him because perhaps I love him, and on the other hand, I almost love him because I almost hate him.
Oh Myself, Myself, where are you? I am surrounded by Me’s and Me’s — bewildered Me’s, wicked Me’s, frivolous Me’s and vindictive Me’s — and I cannot feel you at all.
A couple of days later, she despairs about the possibility of integration:
I think I am not equal at present to wrestle with Myself and Me… Myself and the Me’s are like strings which ought to, and will, guide me when I can understand them, but just now they are tangling up my feet, keeping me from going on.
And yet despite her confusion and her romantic exasperation, Gág coolly notes that she has “a pretty stable record as far as love [is] concerned,” observing that most girls of her age she met in school have already been engaged “once or twice or even thrice.” She cites a poignant exchange with her friend Nina and considers the perilous sublimation of “Myself,” for the benefit of “Me,” in our attempts at love:
She thinks … that she knows more about love than I do. Of course she has been engaged three times and has seen more of the world than I have. But most of the time Herself was obliterated, and you cannot depend upon the judgment of Me’s. Just about all that I know about the subject, I have learned since I have discovered Myself, so I insist that even tho I don’t know as much as she does, I know better.
The following year, with patronage from the prominent book collector and publisher Herschel V. Jones — known for his philosophy of “credit based on character and integrity” — Gág transferred to The Minneapolis School of Art. But she brought along both her preoccupation with the “Me”/“Myself” divide and her infatuation with Armand. In an entry from April of 1915, she contemplates with great anguish and poignancy how these two notions — self and love — relate to one another, through the lens of her feelings for Armand:
Where under the sun that man got all that knowledge of human nature, I do not know, but the more I think about it and the more I compare him with other people, the more I realize that his knowledge of people’s innermost selves is not only extensive but beautifully sympathetic. Oh ding it all, Armand is a perfect brick and all his irritating characteristics are but virtues which are misunderstood. I am speaking particularly of those which I deliberately misunderstand.
She adds a pause-giving note on gender double standards:
Oh it is so hard to know that you have to keep caring when you are trying so virtuously to do otherwise. Even the fact that Armand may not care for me at all, and even tho I may be humiliating myself unspeakably in the eyes of the future Wanda Gág, I write, recklessly, that I love him still. If I were a man it would be different. No one thinks a man humiliates himself by loving faithfully and forever a woman who does not care for him. One even admires him for it. But with a woman it is different. She must choke it down and bear it all in silence. I must just act as if I now believe that it was the child in me that had spoken last Spring. Perhaps it was the child-part that spoke, and perhaps I will meet someone whom I like better — but I am certainly not anywhere near believing it.
This mention of the inner child is especially poignant in light of a letter Armand had sent her a year earlier, in which he writes:
The child sees the truth but the genius sees the truth and realizes it.
And yet Gág’s most perceptive remark touches on the very thing that Tom Stoppard would later articulate in the greatest definition of love — the idea that the best kind of love sees through our “Me’s” and straight to the “Myself,” and this seeingness is the source of its irresistible pull on us:
If he did not understand me so very very well, and if he were not so absolutely indispensable to my poor groping Myself, I should almost wish I had never met him. But I’m glad I did, anyway.
The same month, she revisits the subject of duty in the evolution of the self, which is where her theory of “Me” and “Myself” originated:
There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves. If I find myself, as I did, the daughter of an artist who has left me with broadmindedness and a conveniently strong character to resist temptation, I take myself from there and accomplish what I can… I do not even deserve praise for doing my best, for that is my duty and I deserve to be blamed for not doing my best.
Growing Pains is a wonderful read in its entirety — the living record of how a remarkable artist, who should be appreciated and celebrated far more than she is by our short-termist culture, became herself. Complement it with great writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit Gág’s Grimm illustrations and her delightful alphabet book.