George Bellows, Both Members of This Club
George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, 1909, oil on canvas, 115 x 160.5 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
Grant Wood, American Gothic
Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaver board, 78 x 65.3 cm / 30-3/4 x 25-3/4" (The Art Institute of Chicago)
- American Gothic is an iconic painting that has come to represent small-town middle America. In the years since its creation, it has been interpreted in many different ways. Many aspects of the painting create general, universal forms that lean towards the geometric. It allows the painting to feel both real and symbolic at the same time.
- Grant Wood grew up on a remote farm in rual Iowa. He is considered an American Scene or Regionalist painter, a movement that sought to represent the American midwest and its values. Wood however spent time in Paris and Munich, and his art was informed by these travels. His style changed from a semi-Impressionist stlye to the hard-edged one seen in American Gothic, possibly influenced by early Northern Renaissance art as well as the Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany.
- In 1930 the US had changed from going through one of its most prosperous moments to the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Fascists in Europe were just beginning to take power, and the ideology that went with that was often about going back to a rural, primitive experience. Some art historians have looked at this painting and seen an echo of anti-internationalism, but that is only one of many interpretations.
More to think about
The video argues that one of the reasons that American Gothic has become such an icon is that its ambiguity allows the viewer to see what they want in it. What other reasons might have made the painting as famous as it has become?
What other works of art do you associate with American identity? What vision of America do those works of art promote? Are those visions of America accurate? Why or why not?
Cheap Thrills, Coney Island during the Great Depression
Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, tempera on board, 61 x 101.6 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
- During the Great Depression, amusements like Steeplechase Park in Coney Island provided an affordable escape from the anxieties of daily life. Coney Island attracted people of different classes, races, and genders, bringing them together in ways that were not always considered socially acceptable in other environments.
- Reginald Marsh documented the lives and activities of the working class, part of a general trend in the 1930s towards capturing life realistically. While many of his colleagues, including the photographer Dorothea Lange, worked in rural areas, Marsh focused his attention on life in urban spaces.
- Marsh’s depictions of women combine elements of reality and popular culture that portray women through a voyeuristic and sexualized lens. His buxom figures were inspired by movie stars, and also reflect the salacious spectacle of Coney Island, where working-class women like those in this image could supplement their income in dance halls and popular entertainment.
More to think about
Coney Island was a place of social permissiveness, entertainment, and escape that crossed lines of class, race, and gender. What are some settings that function in this way today? How would you compare these contemporary examples to the scene that Marsh shows us in his work?
Stephen Mopope, Game of Skill
Stephen Mopope, Game of Skill, 1933, oil on canvas, 57.2 x 122.6 cm (Gilcrease Museum)
- Stephen Mopope was among the Kiowa Six collective of Native artists who were active in the early 20th century. The group, based in Oklahoma, is best known for their paintings, typically on paper, of daily Native life in the region. Their “flatstyle” employed bold, unmodulated color and sharp contours in the depiction of single figures on a solid background.
- In Game of Skill, Mopope modifies the flatstyle by centering a vast landscape that recedes back into space. His figures are still made of flat, bright colors and distinct contours, but they are largely placed to the sides of the composition, allowing the expansive landscape of the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma to dominate the scene.
- In the foreground, Mopope depicts a Kiowa encampment, with tipis dotting the landscape and community members gathered for a competitive game of skill. He made this work in response to a time of loss for the Kiowa and other tribes in the region, including the Apache and Comanche, with whom the Kiowa had shared hunting grounds and then a reservation established in 1867. Through the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. government had broken up these lands into allotments (equally-sized parcels given to individual Native families), thereby fragmenting the social fabric and lifeways of Native communities and increasing land available for development by non-Natives. Mopope’s scene serves as a reminder, a documentation of the Kiowa community’s long standing identity and history with this land.
- Mopope would have been familiar with this connection to the land from his own lived experience among the Kiowa. His act of documenting the historic relationship between the Kiowa and the land also reflects his lineage in the community. His great uncle Silver Horn was a Kiowa calendar keeper, a tribal historian who visually recorded the activities of the community throughout the year.
Read more about this work at the Gilcrease Museum.
Explore calendar drawings by Mopope’s great uncle and Kiowa calendar-keeper, Silver Horn in this resource from the Sam Noble Museum in Oklahoma.
Learn about Stephen Mopope’s WPA murals for the U.S. Post Office in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
Read more about the history of allotment of Native lands in Oklahoma in the late 19th and early 20th century from the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
More to Think About
- By the time Mopope paints this picture, the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation had been disestablished and broken up into allotments, and the Wichita Mountains had been established as a national forest. Who do you imagine the audience was for Mopope’s painting? Was there more than one? What message might it have communicated to various audiences, Native and non-Native?
- As a class, discuss your perspective on this question: do you see this painting as documenting the history of a community, an act of protest and resistance, or both? Why? Use evidence from the painting and the historical context of the painting and the Kiowa people to support your answers.
Premonition or memory? George Grosz’s Remembering
George Grosz, Remembering, 1937, oil on canvas, 71.2 x 91.76 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art, © Estate of George Grosz)
- The persecution of political adversaries and marginalized groups of people began years before the start of World War II. Witnessing the rise of fascism during the 1930s, many artists and intellectuals sensed the dangers of remaining in Germany and emigrated to America.
- In 1937, the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition represented a fascist attack on art and culture. It included work by many artists who had been politically engaged and often critical of the National Socialist party. Meant to ridicule the international avant-garde, the exhibition highlighted modernism as an example of a sick (or degenerate) society.
- As an expressionist artist, George Grosz combines elements of both abstraction and representational figure painting to evoke sensations of reflection and memory.
More to think about
With the Degenerate Art exhibition, the Nazis openly criticized artists who expressed differing political viewpoints or challenged artistic traditions with modernist experiments. Why do you think totalitarian governments would think it necessary to censor and suppress the work of modern artists?
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33-1/8 x 60 inches) (The Art Institute of Chicago)
- Nighthawks was painted in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. The painting reflects the fear and anxiety of the time, as well as the emptiness of many urban areas as both men and women went overseas for the war.
- The use of warm light inside and cold light outside helps foster a sense of separation and alienation, as does the use of strong geometric shapes and lines. The geometric shapes frame the figures but also emphasize that we are not a part of their lives. We can only speculate about their stories and what they are doing in the diner.
- Images of loneliness and isolation in urban spaces occupied Hopper for his entire career. In Nighthawks, Hopper has used small details like the lone cash register seen in the shop across the street, or the carefully-rendered napkin holders in the diner, to create a sense of familiarity. We know this urban space even as we do not know what specific place it is based on.
More to think about
Nighthawks is one of the most parodied works of art. If you were going to make a parody that addressed current feelings of isolation, who would be there? How would you change or alter the surroundings? What other details would you use to communicate your meaning?
A sense of isolation in modern urban areas is not unique to the American experience. European artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner explored the feeling of being alone in a crowded urban setting in paintings of bustling streets. Compare Nighthawks to Street, Dresden by Kirchner. How can we compare Kirchner and Hopper’s methods of communicating their ideas?