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: Prints by Wanda Gag


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
From the memorial exhibition of Prints and Drawings by Wanda Gag shown at the Institute during the late summer and early autumn eighteen lithographs and wood engravings were acquired for the permanent collection through the Dunwoody Fund. These prints, including Elevated Station, Easter Morning, Barns, Stone Crusher, Lamplight, Uncle Frank's Work Shop, Spinning Wheel (wood engraving), Spring on the Hillside, Abandoned Quarrey, Siesta, Winter Garden, Grandma's Kitchen, Evening, Christmas at Tumble Timbers, Kitchen Shelf, and Spinning Wheel (lithograph), are now on view in the Print Gallery. It is peculiarly fitting that they should have become part of the Institute's permanent collection inasmuch as Herschel V. Jones, the founder of the museum's print collection through his notable gift of the Ladd Collection of prints, was among the first to recognize and appreciate Miss Gag's talent. In 1915 he provided for a two-year course of study at the Minneapolis School of Art for her. In 1917 Miss Gag won a scholarship at the Art Students League and went to New York to continue her studies.The group of prints by which she is now represented in the Institute is not a large one but it is more than adequate to show the heights she reached in wood engraving and lithography. Miss Gag's output in this field was not extensive. In her long career as an artist she produced only about a hundred prints. Nevertheless, it is upon her prints rather than upon her children's books—much more widely known—that her fame will ultimately rest. In them she created some of the finest things of her time: vigorous, dynamic, imaginative, and oftentimes disturbing. Miss Gag herself once remarked that "every once and a while some one is surprised at finding something grim or somber in my pictures." These are not qualities which emerge immediately or always, but they are present in much of her work, reflecting her great preoccupation with the mystery of beauty and of being.She saw beauty everywhere, in a tumble-down house, a stone crusher left by the wayside, a pair of high buttoned boots. She envisaged things, as well as humans, as having a life of their own but it was only after years of struggle compounded almost equally of despair and exultation that she evolved the highly individualized style which enabled her to share this vision. The fact of the struggle is apparent in almost all of her work. It gives her prints an explosive quality kept under control only by the most rigorous discipline. It results also, through the effort to make design conform to character, in a slight distortion that adds enormously to the dramatic effect of her work. Even the literal-minded, who cavil at distortion in a work of art, would be convinced of its emotional value if they could see a factual rendition of Lamplight, for example, set beside Miss Gag's conception of the scene. The former would be a picture of a chair, a table bearing a lamp and bowl, and an open door. Miss Gag's Lamplight is something else. It is a little moment in time wherein a group of inanimate objects, quivering with life, keep vigil. The lamp with its battered shade casting flickering shadows on the wall, the darkened doorway, the empty chair, become alive and full of meaning through Miss Gag's awareness of their being.This vividness is partly the result of distorted lines and planes, elements in the drama which is being played out in black and white. The distortion is conscious but controlled, contributing an important part to the vibrant composition built up with small dots and short flickering strokes. The quality of these two aspects of Miss Gag's style—distortion and powerful composition—is enhanced by her feeling for space. She solved the problem of spatial relationship, which troubled her very early in her career, so perfectly that space becomes an eloquent and vital note in the harmony of her composition. She was constantly aware of it in the planning of her designs. During her days at art school her instructors frequently criticized her for not blocking out her compositions. She always protested that she did block them out, but in her mind. The problem before her was always first a mental problem of design, and not until she had solved it completely in her mind did she attempt to set it down on paper.Miss Gag herself described her method in the following analysis of her lithographs Siesta and Grandma's Parlor:"Siesta shows a family of cats basking in the warmth of an early autumn fire. I am always amused at the natural tendency of cats to fit themselves into and over all sorts of places and spaces—and from an artistic point of view I am interested in the interrelation of forms resulting from this. I felt the room as a space in which cylinders (stove, wood), cubes (box, bench), flat surfaces (floor, walls), and the more pliable forms of the cats all had their places. Since I wanted a mood of calm and comfort, I used a simple composition of familiar objects grouped around a nucleus of light, and arranged so that the eye could travel easily from one to the other. Technically I was interested in bringing out the delicacy rather than the forcefulness of the lithographic medium, so I built up this drawing by the use of many fine lines."Miss Gag's explanation reveals precisely why Siesta, reproduced on page 156, exercises an appeal of which one may have been wholly aware but which one could not analyze. Here mood and technique are so closely interwoven that the fine, hairy lines of the composition are like the veil of sleep itself.Of Grandma's Parlor, reproduced here, Miss Gag wrote: "When, after many years, I returned to Minnesota and again saw the front room Down at Grandma's, it seemed to me the epitome of Parlor—a staid, rather cold place, the clean, dustless repository of objects too "artistic" to be sullied by use. That, at least, is how it impressed me objectively. Subjectively a host of childhood associations crowded themselves into the scene, softened the lines, and gave it a life of its own. Out in the kitchen sat my solid peasant forbears—here in the parlor was this baroque display, this naïve acceptance of mid-Victorian "beauty." It was amusing but touching, too, so when I began to draw, a wave of tender tolerant mirth flowed through me and over my paper. That, I suppose, is why the picture came out as it did: the Grand Rapids dresser atilt with gaiety, the lamp like a clumsy gosling poising its ridiculous wings for flight, and the two little pitchers swaying and saying, "Let's dance." Technically I tried to get all the richness possible out of the lithographic medium. An old-fashioned parlor, arranged mainly for show rather than use, has something theatrical about it; and to portray this, I used a strong black and white design—an almost spotlight effect—to bring out the rococo pattern against the rich black shadows."Memories of Grandma's house, and of happy Christmases in New Ulm—there were happy ones there, recorded in the diary Growing Pains—must have been vivid in Miss Gag's mind when she did the wood engraving of Christmas at Tumble Timbers. It is redolent of joy in the season, of home and warmth and the soft wonder of snow. Here again a homely scene becomes beautiful through the vision of the mind that created it. This print and Spinning Wheel are two of Miss Gag's finest wood engravings. Both are characteristic of her method in this process but the method had been used with different emphasis. In Christmas at Tumble Timbers the melody is quietly gay; in Spinning Wheel it is somber and slightly eerie.Somber too, beneath its surface, is the fantastic Stone Crusher reproduced on the cover of this Bulletin. Rearing like some prehistoric beast between swirling branches of trees, this machine might be a grotesque monster stalking the quiet country road. So cleverly have the forms been knit to the space and the falling lines drawn out that the thing actually seems to move. But nothing is ever still in Miss Gag's prints. The flimsy structure of Elevated Station sways and trembles from the rushing feet which have passed up and down its rickety stairs. Lines, planes, shadows, tone, space, imagination, combine to produce a scene which becomes arresting and suggestive in Miss Gag's hands.To the end she remained true to her girlhood motto: Draw to live, and live to draw. From the time she as a child in New Ulm drawing was her passion and her delight. She begrudged every moment spent then in making post cards and place cards and later, in New York, in painting lamp shades and doing fashion drawings. Her early struggles to support her family by such expedients, and her first attempts at art and writing, are recorded in Growing Pains, excerpts published from her diaries in 1940. In this book she relates her experiences as a young girl in New Ulm, and at the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Schools of Art from 1913 to 1917.She received early recognition in the field of prints with the selection of her lithograph Elevated Station for Fifty Prints of the Year in 1926. Gumbo Lane and Christmas at Tumble Timbers were awarded similar honors in 1927 and 1928. It was in 1928 also that Miss Gag wrote and illustrated, for the amusement of two children she knew, the fairy tale called Millions of Cats. Other juvenile books followed: The Funny Thing, Snippy and Snappy, The ABC Bunny, Gone is Gone. In 1938 Miss Gag illustrated her own translation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from the original fairy tale by Grimm. Her reputation as an author-illustrator was soundly established by this series of children's books. In 1930, when her lithograph Lamplight took first prize in the Philadelphia Lithograph exhibition, success as an artist was also assured. It is interesting to note that her finest prints are of such simple, homely subjects and that her imagination was most deeply stirred by commonplace things.The art schools of Minneapolis and Saint Paul can be proud of the part they had in shaping Wanda Gag. Apart from her fame as an author-illustrator she became one of the great print-makers of her generation.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Stone Crusher. Lithograph (1929) by Wanda Gag. A recent acquisition from the Dunwoody Fund
  2. Elevated Station, a lithograph of 1926, brought Wanda Gag early recognition in the field of prints. Dunwoody Fund
  3. Siesta has been one of the most popular of Wanda Gag's prints. It is one of the recent group acquired for the print collection.
  4. Wanda Gag's Christmas at Tumble Timbers was chosen as one of the fifty prints of the year in 1928. Dunwoody Fund
  5. Lamplight. Lithograph by Wanda Gag
  6. Grandma's Parlor by Wanda Gag. This lithograph was done in New Ulm in 1930 while the artist was visiting her old home.
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Source: "Prints by Wanda Gag," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 35, no. 32 (December, 1946): 154-159.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009