Wanda Gág: Village Eccentric, Artist, and Cat Storyteller
Though many creatives found great success in New York and Greenwich Village in their day, many of them have also faded a bit from our collective memory. Luckily, we have plenty of opportunities to revisit these figures and appreciate their work. For instance: Wanda Gág, a Minnesota-born artist, author, translator, and illustrator who made her way to New York around 1917 to join with the leftist artists and writers of Greenwich Village.
Wanda Gág’s story began in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota in 1893. The daughter of German immigrants who also came from artistic backgrounds, she grew up in a poor but happy, art- and music-filled home. Gág kept charming diaries as a young girl, many of which she published in 1940 under the title Growing Pains. Her diaries contain some adorable, artistic notes like “Mr. Winkler was here a moment ago…I want to see the shape of his face a little better. I intend to draw a picture of all the teachers before vacation.” As many sources describe (and as we can easily see from her later work), her childhood curiosity and intensely creative mind remained with her throughout her life.
Developing her artistic talent and passion so early in life, her abilities became quite well-known among her community, with mentors who helped her to start her studies at the St. Paul Institute of Art. Here she found the company of other prolific artists and creators who would also end up in New York, like lithographers Elizabeth Olds and Adolph Dehn. Sources say that they were already reading The Masses at this time. Her mother, unwell during much of Wanda’s childhood, died in early 1917. Her father also passed away when she was 15. To support her family, she would submit her writings and sketches to local publications, and also produce greeting cards and painted lampshades. Around the time her mother died, she also earned a scholarship for the Art Students League. So, after a couple of years of hard work to leave her siblings able to support themselves, she made the leap to New York.
The Artist in New York
Gág’s stay in New York lasted only about six years, moving to more rural places in Connecticut and New Jersey. And accounts of her time in Greenwich Village are hard to come by as it seems her residences were usually farther uptown. But, “having been exposed to unconventional art theory while studying in St. Paul,” she naturally sought the company of other free-thinking, experimental creators of the day, her work “[causing] a sensation in the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1920s”. During the 1920s she spent time among the likes of “Art Young, Floyd Dell, Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson, and other intellectuals she had admired from The Masses which was produced in Greenwich Village.” These contemporaries contributed considerably to her artistic expansion as well as her involvement in this politically-focused community.
An essay on Gág from the Minnesota Historical Society explains that, while she’s most recognized for her later career as a writer and illustrator of popular children’s books, her earlier work from her New York years also brought her great success. She made a living here as a commercial illustrator and artist, earning the attention of renowned galleries, publishing firms, and other artists. Her first solo show in 1923 took place at the New York Public Library. Contemporaries described her as “one of America’s most promising young graphic artists.”
And Now, the Cats
Gág’s illustrations in the late 1920s helped her to get discovered by Coward-McCann. The firm approached Gág for her talent and found that she had stories and illustrations to contribute. Thus, to the delight of children (and cat lovers) for the past 90 years, she published Millions of Cats in 1928, a story that reflects how the author totally understood – and therefore managed to cleverly spin – the makings of a well-loved tale. Gág even introduced a new, ever-popular format for children’s book illustrations: the two-page spread. This format invites the text and images to flow visually across the paper. Incorporating some darkness and radical imagination, the book won a Newbery Honor in 1929 and remains the oldest American picture book still in print.
Gág wrote, illustrated, and translated a number of other books for children and adults, including The Funny Thing, Gone is Gone, or, The Story of a Man who Wanted to Do Housework, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and books of Grimm fairy tales. Surely drawing upon her years with the experimental writers and political cartoonists she encountered in Greenwich Village, her books freely play with reality, often centering around animals and nature, and should be viewed “not only [as] parables on human error…but [as] social statements.” Though her books haven’t remained the most well-known, they’re still remembered by many as peculiar, beloved childhood favorites that keep making their way onto the shelf.