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Video transcript

so how do you approach a painting that is so famous that has become an icon of a nation we're looking at grant woods American Gothic from 1930 which more than any other painting has come to represent America and Middle America in small-town America for many people would 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 Midwestern ER you think oh he's one of us and he captured who we are although the opposite could also be true the east nerves perhaps looked at these Iowans represented in his painting and said ah that's what they're like and the Iowans sometimes looked at this and were worried that 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 set his daughter standing before they are simple farmhouse so there's a sense of hard-working practical people a kind of conservative aspect of America or there's something archaic here everything in this painting does seem homemade the carpenter gothic house and 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 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's going to be something fairly Stern coming it's hard to read him and actually I'm not sure that he's looking directly at us but whether he Stern or kind seems to really be indeterminate and she looks off at something that we can't see something outside of the space of the painting in fact an ambiguity I think is pervasive throughout this painting I think it's one of the reasons that 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's a complex figure sometimes we think of him as a kind of two-dimensional figure an American as to regional lists 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 an XM II 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 linked the kind of hard edge style and the change from Impressionism to his having absorbed the influence of early Northern Renaissance painters like Van Dyke and Memling and perhaps also the noise ocular kite 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 America escaping on the American psyche 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 you 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 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 right this is both real and symbolic I think it's 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 in 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 artists torian's have looked at this American scene painting and seeing a kind of echo of anti internationalism that was seen as very dangerous and in a sense the root of European fascism I suppose like 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's important to embed this painting in not only the artists biography but also the historical moment in which it was made you