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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.”

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.)

Wanda Gág, 1916

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!”).

Young Wanda Gág’s drawing of her siblings, found in the diary

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.

Anton Gág

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.

Three self-portraits

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.

Portrait of Wanda Gág by Adolph Dehn

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.

Page from the diary, 1915

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.

BP

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

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.

BP

The Most Beautiful Illustrations from 200 Years of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, Edward Gorey, David Hockney, Wanda Gág, Shaun Tan, and more.

In his timeless meditation on fantasy and the psychology of fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children.” The sentiment has since been echoed by generations of beloved storytellers: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White told The Paris Review. “You have to write up, not down.” Neil Gaiman argued that protecting children from the dark does them a grave disservice. “I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

Perhaps more than anything else, this respect for children’s inherent intelligence and their ability to sit with difficult emotions is what makes the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm so enduringly enchanting. In their original conception, they broke with convention in other ways as well — rather than moralistic or didactic, they were beautifully blunt and unaffected, celebratory of poetry’s ennobling effect on the spirit. The brothers wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1812 that the storytelling between the covers was intended “to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it.”

Their beloved stories have pleasured the popular imagination for two centuries and have inspired generations of artists to continually reinterpret and reimagine them. Gathered here — after similar collections of the world’s most beautiful illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit — are the finest and most culturally notable such Grimm reimaginings of which I’m aware.

EDWARD GOREY (1972–1973)

In the early 1970s, Edward Gorey — creator of grim alphabets, quirky children’s books, naughty treats for grown-ups, and little-known vintage covers for literary classics — brought his aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The two beloved Grimm tales, along with the Cornish folk classic Jack the Giant-Killer, charmingly retold by James Donnelly and illustrated by Gorey, were eventually collected by Pomegranate in the 2010 gem Three Classic Children’s Stories (public library).

Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood
Rumpelstiltskin
Rumpelstiltskin
Rumpelstiltskin

See more here.

MAURICE SENDAK (1973)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Maurice Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).

That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.

The Poor Miller’s Boy and the Little Cat
The Goblins
Bearskin
The Goblins

To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist’s chronic poor health, legendary children’s book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — Sendak’s editor and his greatest champion — beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: “For heaven’s sake take care of yourself on this trip.”

The Twelve Huntsmen
The Golden Bird
Many-Fur
The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs
Ferdinand Faithful and Ferdinand Unfaithful
The Goblins

See more here.

LISBETH ZWERGER (2012)

Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger is among the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of our time. She has lent her immeasurable talent to such classics as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant in 1984, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1996, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1999. Zwerger brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), published in 2012 and translated by Anthea Bell.

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche. There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Frog King or Iron Henry
The Brave Little Tailor
The Children of Hamelin
Hans My Hedgehog
The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids
The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids
The Bremen Town Musicians
Briar Rose
The Poor Miller’s Boy and the Little Cat

See more here.

WANDA GÁG (1936)

Although the 1936 illustrations for the Grimm tales by Wanda Gág are not necessarily the most visually captivating by contemporary standards, they are perhaps the most culturally significant for a number of reasons. Gág was a pioneering artist, author, printmaker, translator, and entrepreneur, who began her life in poverty as an incredibly precocious child. By the time she was eleven, she was running a successful business selling her art to feed her seven siblings after their father’s death. 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. She would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak.

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a year after she created the world’s first feminist children’s book, Gág was already an icon in her own right. 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 Gág’s retelling of that proto-feminist folktale, which she had 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

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…

Cinderella
Cinderella
Doctor Know-It-All
Six Servants
The Three Brothers
Clever Elsie

See more, including Gág’s remarkably dedicated process, here.

SHAUN TAN (2012)

Shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Australian artist and author Shaun Tan — creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival — about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel
The Fisherman’s Wife
The Golden Bird
Hansel and Gretel
The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear
Cat and Mouse in a House
The Frog King

See more here.

DAVID HOCKNEY (1970)

In 1970, London’s Petersburg Press published Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with Illustrations by David Hockney (public library). Tucked between the beautiful red fabric-bound covers are the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”

‘The boy hidden in an egg’ (The Little Sea Hare)
‘The boy hidden in a fish’ (The Little Sea Hare)
‘The cook’ (Fundevogel)
‘The older Rapunzel’ (Rapunzel)
‘A black cat leaping’ (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)
‘Riding around on a cooking spoon’ (Rumpelstilzchen)

See more here.

ANDREA DEZSÖ (2014)

What most of us know as the Grimm fairy tales today are actually the tales of the seventh and final edition the brothers published in 1857 — a version dramatically different from the one Jacob and Wilhelm first penned forty-six years earlier, when both were still in their twenties. The prominent Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes argues that the original 1812 edition is “just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

Zippes brings that seminal first edition to life in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), featuring breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

‘The Frog King, or Iron Henry’
‘The Three Sisters’
‘The Wild Man’
‘Hans My Hedgehog’
‘The Devil in the Green Coat’
‘Herr Fix-It-Up’
‘Okerlo’

See more, including my interview with Dezsö, here.

SYBILLE SCHENKER (2014)

In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and the East-West masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, yet something wholly original.

Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.

See more here.

LORENZO MATTOTTI (2014)

Neil Gaiman thinks a great deal, and with great insight, about what makes stories last. It is hardly surprising, then, that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm would bewitch his imagination both as a storyteller and as a philosopher of storytelling. More than a decade after the publication of his widely beloved book Coraline, Gaiman brings this spirit of dark delight to his magnificent adaptation of the Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library).

Accompanying Gaiman’s beautiful words, which speak to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, are befittingly beautiful illustrations by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti — the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

See more, including Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly on what makes fairy tales endure, here.

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The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Reimagined in Uncommonly Soulful Illustrations by Austrian Artist Lisbeth Zwerger

“Once upon a time, when wishes could still come true…”

Few feats of storytelling have possessed the popular imagination more powerfully or enduringly than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In the two centuries since the publication of the little-known original edition, penned by Jacob and Wilhelm when they were in their twenties, some of humanity’s most celebrated artists and writers have retold and reimagined these bewitching tales, producing masterpieces like Maurice Sendak’s illustrations a decade in the making, David Hockney’s wonderfully weird vintage visual vignettes, Neil Gaiman’s mesmeric retelling of Hansel and Gretel, and Shaun Tan’s uncommonly haunting sculptural interpretation.

Among the most enrapturing visual reimaginings is one by the celebrated Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger. Having previously illustrated such beloved classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Selfish Giant, she brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), translated by Anthea Bell.

The Frog King or Iron Henry
The Brave Little Taylor
The Children of Hamelin

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche.

Hans My Hedgehog
The Children of Hamelin
The Children of Hamelin
The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids
The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids
The Brave Little Taylor
Hans My Hedgehog
Hans My Hedgehog

There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Bremen Town Musicians
The Bremen Town Musicians
The Bremen Town Musicians
The Bremen Town Musicians
Briar Rose
Briar Rose
The Poor Miller’s Boy and the Little Cat
The Poor Miller’s Boy and the Little Cat

Complement Zwerger’s impossibly beautiful Tales from the Brothers Grimm with trailblazing female children’s book artist Wanda Gág’s early-twentieth-century illustrations, then revisit Zwerger’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde.

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