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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. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
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 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.