Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #14 - American Gothic

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930, Oil on Beaver Board, 78 x 65.3 cm (30 3/4 x 25 3/4 in.), Signed on man's overalls: GRANT / WOOD / 1930, The Art Institute of Chicago

This is one of the most interesting paintings - not because I think it's such a fantastic work of art, but because it has spawned so many variations and has been used in advertising ad nauseum! Right up next to the Mona Lisa, I think this painting has a notoriety that is astounding. It has a ton of parodies - check out this site that shows some of them. You know what they say, "Imitation is one of the sincerest forms of flattery." Grant Wood should fee really flattered! Let's see how this painting got to be so famous.



Wood was one of the artists that started a new movement of art in the United States, Regionalism. For most of Western art history, European art and artists drove the boat. Let's face it - with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance artists (to hit the high points) all centered in Europe, it's no wonder it was so important. Paris was the art capital of the world until the mid-twentieth century when it shifted to New York. American artists in the twentieth century wanted to begin their own traditions and began breaking away from the European tradition. Artwork that was based not only in realism, but also reflected American towns and people became the subjects of the paintings of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. Grant Wood's American Gothic was a hit when it was first exhibited and it has remained an icon for Midwestern America.

His early art education included metalworking, silversmithing, woodworking and jewelry-making. The Craftsman, or Arts and Crafts movement, was a big influence in his artistic style. It helped that he had so many skills because he was able to support himself as a silversmith while he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1934 he became the director of the PWAP for Iowa and was able to draw from the artistic community he had launched by involving many of the Regionalist artists to work on public art projects. From 1934 until his death in 1942, he was a respected painter and professor of painting at the University of Iowa.

Let's take a closer look at the painting - a man and woman stand formally in front of a farmhouse - they look serious and stern. Though the house is in the background, the painting is set up like a portrait. You can see a Gothic-style window in the house, a corner of a red barn and some treetops in the background. The couple are dressed in their finest clothing - the woman has a white collar with a cameo fastened at her neck, the man is wearing a formal dark blue jacket over his overalls and work shirt. Holding a pitchfork in his hand, his face tells of a life of physical labor and exposure to the elements.



The farmhouse looks a bit like a bungalow with Gothic church detailing. The window is arch shaped and has a tripartite (three-part) division, just like the windows in Gothic churches in Europe. There are other Gothic references: the lightning rod that is cut off could represent a cross and the stiff postures of the couple resemble the carved saints that might surround an entrance to a Gothic cathedral. There are lots of decorative details, patterns in the fabrics, details in their clothing, the grain of wood the house is made of, which makes the painting super realistic. So realistic, you think he has documented a moment in a farm couple's life. But Wood carefully set the scene himself - the woman is his sister and the man is his dentist. Everything, man, woman and house, were sketched separately and combined into his composition.

There is some ambiguity in their countenances - the woman is staring off with an expression that could be worried, dreamy or distracted, but the man confronts the viewer's gaze directly. His grip on the pitchfork communicates his ownership of all you see in the picture - he is protective and proud. The seriousness of the painting tips just slightly into satire. Is he honoring this couple or mocking them? Even when the painting was first exhibited, no one was quite sure what his intentions were. He never tipped his hand; he just explained it as part of the Regionalism movement. Smart guy. Artists do not always have to tell everyone what their work is about - it can be up to the viewer to make their own meaning. Is this one of the reasons this painting has been parodied so much, because it already has this edgy quality to it? What do you think?

Grant Wood Self Portrait, 1932

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Art I students' thoughts about making art

Wordle: What Art I students feel about making ArtClick here to see a higher resolution of the word cloud on wordle.net's site

OK - so I did the same thing with my Art I students and was curious to see how different their thinking might be. Their ideas weren't radically different, but there were some responses that were different. Check out their word cloud by clicking up above and visiting it on the wordle site.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My sculpture students' thoughts about making art

Wordle: Thoughts about making sculptureClick here to see the word cloud on Wordle's site in better resolution.

I gave my sculpture students a fall semester survey to get their feedback on the class so far. One of my questions was for them to make a list of words and phrases that communicate their feelings about their art making. I used wordle.net to make a word cloud of my student's word lists. After typing in all of their words, Presto! A word cloud was formed! BUT, I found out you can't search for your word cloud on their site, but could paste the html into your blog, which I have done. The resolution isn't great for this post, but I've created a link above to the original word cloud. Much nicer. The biggest words were the ones that were the most frequently listed, with the smallest words being the least frequently used. Fun stuff.

Monday, December 06, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #13 - Winona

The Winona, 1935 Sears Honor-Bilt Homes

This Honor-Bilt model home was the top of the line (and the most expensive) for Sears' home kits. They had lesser grade structures - the Standard Built and the Simplex Sectional. In the 1930s, this house would have cost between $721 and $1998, which would be from $10,000-25,000 in today's dolllars. The style is a bungalow-style house from the Craftsman movement. The Craftsman movement was one that wanted to go back to a handmade look. After the advent of the Industrial Revolution, there was a return to things that looked handmade and not machine made. A bungalow is a small, intimate dwelling and has been a popular house throughout the 20th century. You will hear of bungalows in California, where they were widely built, but they are super expensive in that real estate market now!

They typically have covered porches and low-pitched roofs. There are deep overhangs and exposed beams. The look is simple, square and there is limited space. In order to make the small space seem bigger, the main spaces (kitchen, living room and dining room) are open to each other with built-in furnishings. You can see the floor plan in the image post. The main living areas are on the left and have arched openings to the center of the structure. The right side of the building has the bedrooms, bathrooms and closets. There was some customization available - the customer could choose between two and three-bedroom designs. Or, they could flip the design so the bedrooms were on the left. The house came with a basement and an attic and the owner could add a garage or a carport.

These kits made owning a home very affordable. Because Sears could mass produce these, and the houses were limited to the customization, they could keep the price down, more people could afford to build them and it really upgraded their life in spite of their limited incomes. Compare these prices to the $155,000 it took to build Fallingwater (the next post down), and you can see why they were popular! In the 1930s, the average salary was $1,600, so even though these houses were inexpensive, they were still a commitment to the buyer. In order to make it more attractive for potential home owners, Sears, Roebuck and Company set up financing so people could purchase their homes with a loan that had 6-7% interest. Coupled with the steady growth of the automobile industry, the middle class was beginning to boom in the early part of the 20th century, and the average consumer was in debt for a house and a car. Debt spending had begun on a larger scale in the U.S.! But, in the end, the Great Depression hit even this industry and during the 1930s Sears stopped offering the financing because people could not keep up their payments. Sales fell and in the 1940s Sears stopped offering mail-order homes all together. During the 24 years they sold the house kits, between 70,000 and 75,000 people bought them and there are still many Sears houses standing today.