Monday, December 21, 2009

Does your dentist look like this? Grant Wood grew up in Iowa, drew camouflage on cannons during WWI, traveled to Europe to learn about art, and returned with a conviction that he preferred to paint in the style of the old masters. He spotted this structure with its Gothic revival window and created a subject by enlisting the aid of his dentist and his own sister, Nan. Some suggested he was making fun of stalwart, Midwesterners, but he denied the accusation. Not sure just why American Gothic has become such an icon - what do you think? I had never really looked closely at it 'til now since there's that "I already know this painting" feeling about it.

Sr. Wendy often has something interesting to say, so I searched for her viewpoint:

The subjects' motivations, even when considered as father and daughter, are unclear: The man may be a farmer holding a pitchfork, nothing more than a piece of farming equipment. Or he may not be a farmer at all, but a preacher, perhaps, jealously guarding his daughter from male suitors. Critics who interpret the woman as his daughter have often assumed she was a spinster -- but just what kind of spinster is left to the imagination. Some see the stray curl at the nape of her neck as related to the snake plant in the background, each one symbolizing a sharp-tongued "old maid." Sister Wendy sees in the curl, however, a sign that she is not as repressed as her buttoned-up exterior might indicate.

Let's hope she's right about that curl. Here's another - his mother with a plant. Maybe I'm just in a punchy, pre-holiday mood, but it made me laugh. It's called Woman with Plants and according to Wood's estate website, it depicts his loving, strong Midwestern mom against the landscape she knew and loved. The decision of his to make her loom so large must be the feature that gives it such a sense of caricature, I guess. What do you think?


  1. There's a theory (held as fact by Robert Hughes and others) that Grant Wood was homosexual. True or not, he seems to have been a kind of outsider in the Iowa he so cherished, perhaps by dint of his extraordinary talent -- of course, as you mention, he'd lived and exhibited in Europe, too. In most of his paintings, every brushstroke contains a gentle wink; you see it in his portrait of his mother (I have a feeling snake plants were to the Midwest what aspidistera were to Orwell's England!), in his landscapes, and even in his self-portrait, where the sober expression seems on the cusp of laughter -- my take, anyway, which may be a matter of projection. When the wink was given free rein, it enabled him to lampoon those DAR dowagers and Shriners to devastating effect.

    I'm not aware of any painter of his stature who could induce the same out-loud laughter. It seems the only possible response to his take on Parson Weems' fable, for example, with his grafting of the Gilbert Stuart head on the child's body -- it must have infuriated those DAR women! And yet it's not Washington he was lampooning, but his apotheosis. There's plenty of affection in that painting.

    Not sure what the stray curl represents, only that it seems a necessary note of whimsy . . .

  2. I'll have to check out the Gilbert Stuart grafting - I'm not familiar with that.