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

4 comments:

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