Wood, American Gothic, 1930 Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm / 30-3/4 x 25-3/4 inches (The Art Institute of Chicago) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
Wood, American Gothic, 1930
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- So how do you approach a painting that is so famous,
- that has become an icon of a nation?
- We're looking at Grant Wood's "American Gothic" from 1930
- which more than any other painting has come to represent America and Middle America
- and small-town America for many people.
- Wood said that this was a father and a daughter,
- but we know that the models were his dentist and his sister.
- It's as contested as our nation is.
- It has as many readings as we have ideas about what our country is.
- So in some ways it depends on which side of the political spectrum you're on.
- If you're a city person, you think that he's mocking the people who live in the Midwest,
- and if you're a Midwesterner, you think, oh, he's one of us,
- and he captured who we are.
- Although the opposite could also be true.
- The Easterners, perhaps, looked at these Iowans represented in this painting, and said,
- "Ah, that's what they're like."
- And the Iowans sometimes looked at this and we're worried they were being mocked.
- There's a lot of meaning in this painting.
- Okay, so we can look at it at face value at its most simplified and see this farmer,
- see, perhaps, as the artist said, his daughter,
- standing before their simple farmhouse.
- So there's a sense of hard-working, practical people,
- a kind of conservative aspect of America.
- There's something archaic here.
- Everything in this painting does seem homemade.
- The carpenter Gothic house in back of them, the apron that the woman wears, his overalls,
- everything seems as if it could have been made by these people.
- This is 1930, and the United States is an intensely industrial culture.
- And even by Iowa standards, this painting is a very archaic image
- But the quality that is most present here for me is the confrontation with these figures.
- They stand right up in front of us.
- We're not sure what he's going to say.
- But I do get the sense that his face is about to change,
- and he's either going to open up with a smile, or there is going to be something
- fairly stern coming from him.
- It's hard to read him, actually.
- And I'm not sure that he's looking directly at us.
- But whether he is stern or kind seems to really be indeterminate.
- And she looks off at something we can't see, something outside of the space of the painting.
- In fact, that ambiguity, I think, is pervasive throughout this painting.
- I think it's one of the reasons this painting is, in fact, so powerful,
- and has become such a symbol of the American heartland
- because people can see in it what they want.
- I think it helps to know something about Grant Wood himself.
- He grew up on a really remote farm in a remote part of Iowa
- with his two brothers and sister and his parents.
- He was really isolated.
- His father was very strict.
- He didn't really fit in with his family.
- He had a kind of softer, more artistic side to him
- than the masculine side of his brothers and his father,
- and he was very close to his mother.
- His father died young.
- So a complicated biography that I think does make its way into this painting.
- Well, he is a complex figure.
- Sometimes we think of him as a kind of two-dimensional figure,
- an Americanist, a Regionalist, the American scene,
- that is, somebody who painted from the heartland.
- These were his people.
- Grant Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton, and a number of other artists,
- are establishing what they're calling Regionalism,
- what others call American scene painting.
- That is, a figurative tradition of the Middle West
- that speaks to American values.
- But he was a much more complex figure.
- He spent a lot of time in Paris as did most artists of his generation,
- painting in a semi-impressionist style.
- He also spent time in Munich.
- So he wasn't quite as American as our idea of him,
- or the idea that this painting gives us.
- In fact, art historians link the kind of hard-edged style and the change
- from Impressionism to his having absorbed the influence
- of early Northern Renaissance painters like Van Eyck and Memling,
- and perhaps also the Neue Sachlichkeit of contemporary German painting.
- Right, on his visit to Munich, in the 1920s.
- And so this is a painter who is influenced by European traditions,
- although he's turning those lessons on his own people, on the American landscape,
- on the American pysche.
- We certainly see that influence of the Northern Renaissance, I think,
- especially in the face of the male figure where we have almost a map of this man's face
- with every wrinkle and crease.
- We can see the individual lines of his eyebrows, for example.
- You can almost see where the pores will allow the beard to emerge ultimately.
- I mean, there is a kind of specificity here that is almost terrifying.
- And I think that specificity is in his face and not so much in the rest of the picture.
- If you look at the trees in the background, they've become rounded, geometric shapes
- that are generalized.
- And so the rest of the painting has a sense of geometry, of lines and circles and zigzags.
- And there's a way that the artist takes the specific and creates
- a kind of more universal form out of it.
- I think the trees are a perfect example of that.
- This is both real and symbolic.
- But I think it is important not to ignore the broader context in which this work was made.
- This is 1930.
- The United States had recently gone through one of its most prosperous moments,
- but just the year before, 1929, the stock market crashed,
- and the economy stalled.
- If you think about the broader political situation, you have in Europe
- the fascists just beginning to take power, and there is an important political ideology
- that goes with that, which is often speaking of going back to a kind of rural, primitive experience.
- And so some art historians have looked at this American scene painting
- and seen a kind of echo of anti-internationalism that was seen as very dangerous,
- and in a sense the root of European fascism.
- I suppose as patriotism itself, this painting has been read in a whole bunch of different ways.
- It's had psychoanalytic readings.
- It's had political readings.
- And it's had kind of historical readings.
- And I think it is important to embed this painting in not only the artist's biography
- but also the historical moment in which it was made.
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