Arts and Entertainment

The Lively World of Wanda Gág

A review of Wanda Gág’s World exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A small olive-colored, square-sized gallery contains an exhibition of artwork reminiscent of childhood picture books: The Whitney Museum’s Wanda Gág’s World. The exhibition presents several of artist Gág’s quintessential illustrations, showcasing her unique perspective on movement and life. 

Wanda Gág was born in Minnesota on March 11, 1893. She was raised in an artistic family—both of her parents were Bohemian, and her father was an artist and a commercial photographer. Gág’s keen interest in art emerged when she was a child; she would draw so much that she was nicknamed “Inky.” She studied ink, lithography, and engraving at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Art Students League of New York before starting to make prints. Eventually, Gág would find her own art style contrary to the dominant influences of abstraction and social realism at the time. Instead, her style distinctly depicted ordinary objects, using primarily black ink and intricate and lyrical lines to create a dynamic sense of life and enchantment in her pieces.

The black and white etching Stone Crusher (1929) is displayed among Gág’s earlier works. The piece highlights her common motif of portraying inanimate objects with life and vivid movement. The piece illustrates a stone crusher, but the configuration of the object makes it resemble a living giraffe more than a machine. This is due to the embellishment and proportionality of certain features in the machine. For example, the top part of the stone crusher mimics the shape and position of a giraffe’s head, and the circular dials on that part of the machine are comparable to the eyes of a giraffe. The machine is also drawn with a large curve that billows at its bottom, mimicking the animal’s form. Other distinct elements of the machine contrast with their conventional structure in real life, including the stone crusher’s handles, levers, and tires—they veer in different directions. The surrounding setting exacerbates the image’s dynamic sense of life. Gág portrays leaves, grass, trees, and soil with expressive, stirring lines that work to emphasize the machine’s movement by maintaining the flow of the lines. There are trees upside-down appearing in the background, but this does not disrupt the flow of the drawing, adding a larger feeling of mystical spontaneity and wonder to the piece. Stone Crusher is a prime example of Gág’s stylization choices throughout her life, as she utilized expressive movement to add passion and vitality to still objects. 

Another piece that encapsulates Gág’s unique distorted vision on seemingly conventional subjects is her piece Snow Drifts (1934), portraying abstract depictions of snow draped over a landscape of a bridge over a body of water. Similar to the stone crusher resembling a giraffe, the snow in this piece resembles toes. It’s distinctly thick and stocky, and the snow’s sides are shaded in to emphasize its body-digit inspiration. Two poles peer out of the snow, but they are abnormally curved toward the right. The lines depicting the bridge structure have an organic quality, which blends with the curves and shapes of the snow. The snow varies in protruding shapes and sizes, with some slowly surging down, evoking a sense of slow movement.

Gág also drew many pieces depicting the interior of her home, which are eerie and dark in comparison to her landscapes. Lamplight (1929) portrays a chair, a lamp, and a bowl on a table in a dark room. Gág turns the objects’ shadows into larger, cryptic figures that stand on the walls. All of the elements in this illustration, including the shadows, tilt in various directions, endowing the work with the flickery fluidity characteristic of Gág’s style. The bowl has an inconsistent rim, and the lamp’s head folds downward. By depicting still furniture with movement through the added dimension of shadows and lighting, Gág creates an ominous and mysterious ambience in the work. 

The pieces in Wanda Gág’s World reflect the artistic motifs found in her children’s books, maintaining the imaginative stories and whimsical illustrations she is praised for. She consistently portrays landscapes, interior subjects, and still life in ways that challenge the conventionality of real-life vision, influencing her young audience to view the world with more dimension and movement.