Our society encourages artists to exaggerate their eccentricities. Musicians, writers and graphic artists compete to distinguish themselves by dressing and behaving outlandishly
. A nice couple of bucks can be made from appearing as kinky and outrageous as possible.
Such poseurs are different from genuine eccentrics-- the ones who risk everything because they just can't help what they are. The difference can be seen in the authenticity of their work.
Wanda Gag (1893-1946) the illustrator and author of important children's books
, was one of the true eccentrics in American illustration.
The strong willed daughter of a Bohemian artist, Gag grew up in a remote corner of rural Minnesota. Her parents died when she was young, leaving her impoverished and responsible for her six younger siblings. She fought to keep her family together, rejecting efforts to divide the children into foster homes.
Relying on just $8 per month from the county, Wanda scratched for pennies. She sold little knicknacks and pictures to feed her young siblings. She trained in St. Paul to become a professional illustrator but found the lessons too confining:
I cannot bear to think of following in the footsteps of others. And this is what they are teaching us to do here in Illustration. We are doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and everyone has a Leyendecker cover at their side which they consult and worship while working at their own sketch.
Wanda was intent on developing her own style, one that combined art and real life, so after providing for her siblings Wanda left Minnesota in 1917 to become an artist in New York City. An early feminist and suffragist, Wanda was politically radical and artistically uncompromising. She practiced "free love," believing that an active sex life was a wellspring for artistic creativity. She developed a series of odd theories about nature, aesthetics and fertility. She designed and made her own clothes for an "artistic" look.
Shortly after her arrival in New York Wanda started doing illustrations for the communist newspaper, New Masses
She began receiving steady commercial assignments but found them unfulfilling so she cut her commercial ties and rented a ramshackle home in the country (which she named Tumble Timbers). There she could work on her fine art without distraction. (Also without heat, running water or bathrooms. She ate food from her garden and cooked on a kerosene stove. Her lean years in Minnesota had made her fearless about poverty.)
|Wanda's drawing of Tumble Timbers|
|Wanda's drawing of her bed at Tumble Timbers, inscribed to her lover Carl|
Her younger sister wrote a song poking fun at Wanda ("If she thinks its funny that you work for money / Don't blame her-- 'cause she's an artist!")
|The stairway at Macy's|
In 1928 Wanda hit it big with her first children's book, Millions of Cats,
a deeply odd story about an elderly couple inundated with "millions and billions and trillions of cats." They are ultimately saved when (spoiler alert) the cats kill each other over who is the prettiest. The drawings and hand lettered text are in Wanda's distinctive voice, very unusual for the period.
My favorite book by Gag is her even more peculiar story, "The Funny Thing
," in which a strange dragon-like "aminal" eats the dolls of little children until a weird baby faced man named Bobo (who lives in a cave) persuades the aminal to eat "jum-jills" (a food that Bobo invented from seed puddings and nut cakes) instead. The aminal likes them because they make his tail grow longer (see illustration below, in which Jum-jills are rolled into balls and fed to him by birds).
If Wanda had any commercial sense she probably would have written sweet, condescending books for children but that was not in her DNA. She said, "I aim to make the illustrations for children's books as much a
work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition." Lo and behold, children recognized her authenticity so her books have remained classics for over 80 years.
With her success, Wanda was able to move from Tumble Timbers to a new home she called "All Creation" but her fortune did not change her personality. In 1941 she confided to her diary,
often think, "what if my readers and various people who apparently think
highly of me, what if they knew that I can feel love for more than one
man at the same time, that for years there have been three men on my
love-horizon, that I indulge in bizarre and esoteric love rites with my
lovers! Would they, knowing this, consider me less good?"
In her extensive private diaries Wanda spoke of sex joyfully but in euphemisms, calling it "treetops" or "experiences of a non-Euclidean variety."
|Wanda with two of her lovers, Earle Humphreys and Adolph Dehn. Apparently, her strong personality persuaded men to agree to these sharing arrangements. |
Compare Wanda's secret diaries, and the price she paid for her nature, to the easy license for today's art celebrities such as Currin or Koons. Artists are coaxed and coddled to strive for eccentricity now. They have become fabulously wealthy flaunting the kind of weirdness that helped keep Wanda impoverished.
Gag's drawings can't compete with the slick production values or technical skill of today's art impresarios but I find her genuine eccentricity a far more rewarding human experience.