- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

Iowa artist Grant Wood is famous for the painting “American Gothic,” depicting a dour pitchfork-wielding farmer and his prim female companion in front of a Carpenter Gothic-style house. The homespun scene has spawned numerous spoofs, sendups and entire books about its meaning. Like the Mona Lisa, it is an artwork that has become so familiar that it is banal.

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery offers the opportunity to reappraise Wood’s 1930 masterpiece, including such small, overlooked touches as a loose strand of hair and the potted snake plant on the porch. “American Gothic,” on loan from Chicago’s Art Institute, is making a rare three-month appearance as part of a longer-running retrospective, “Grant Wood’s Studio,” which traces the artist’s early career from amateurish impressionist-style paintings inspired by trips to France in the 1920s to serene pastoral landscapes of his native Iowa, completed in the 1930s.

The most interesting part of the show reveals a little-known side of Wood: the metalwork, stained glass, commercial art and interior decorating that he undertook to make a living while pursuing the finer arts. His versatility in designing everything from a corn-cob chandelier to a folding screen and tufted lounge chairs makes you wonder why he bothered to take up painting.

One of his creations was his own studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he lived and worked from 1924 to 1935. The converted hayloft of a carriage house owned by the artist’s patron, David Turner (who ran a funeral home) had a “stage” on one side where Wood painted “American Gothic” and other well-known works.

Large photomurals and various artifacts show that Wood decorated its open space with thickly plastered walls and checkerboard floors. Cabinet doors were covered in scraps of denim from the bib overalls he often wore. A coffin lid was turned into the front door and embellished with signs and an arrow so the artist could inform visitors of his whereabouts.

The exhibit coincides with the renovation of the studio and, like the Wood retrospective held at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1983, attempts to elevate the Iowa artist’s reputation from hokey to haute. Wood was derided as a cornball illustrator-painter even during his lifetime and, after his death in 1942, came to be seen as a Midwestern version of Norman Rockwell.

Trained in Paris and familiar with modern art, Wood turned his back on the avant-garde in the belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.” He came to embrace American regionalism, a representational movement based on grass-roots ideals that counted artists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry as members.

Wood’s new direction was accompanied by a sudden change in style, from loose brush strokes to fastidious detail. The shift was inspired by a 1928 trip to Munich to supervise the making of a huge stained-glass window. While abroad, the Iowan became infatuated with Flemish and German art of the 15th century.

The exhibit is also abrupt in moving from the artist’s dilettante beginnings to his assured portraits and stylized landscapes, almost as if it were two different shows. His best works turn out to have been painted between 1930, the same year as “American Gothic,” and 1934. They include “Stone City, Iowa,” where Wood started an art colony, and “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Both depict toy towns that look borrowed from a train set.

Wood’s green acres, planted crops and hardworking laborers convey a rosy, if unrealistic, view of the country during the Great Depression, and many of his works border on nationalistic propaganda. No wonder he was appointed director of Iowa’s Public Works of Art Project, an offshoot of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Wood’s idyllic regionalism mirrored an American looking inward. In portraying America’s heartland, he also poked fun at provincial stereotypes. “Daughters of the Revolution” (1932) lampoons a trio of tight-lipped, xenophobic crones posed against a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, a German-born artist. “Booster,” one of several illustrations by Wood for Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Main Street,” captures the bluster of a hustling salesman.

Another clever moralizing picture is “Parsons Weems’ Fable,” showing a young George Washington confessing his tree-chopping sin to his father. So the viewer can’t mistake the boy’s identity, the artist sketches his head to resemble Gilbert Stuart’s famous presidential portrait on the dollar bill.

Apparent throughout the show is Wood’s skillful draftsmanship, strong color sense and delight in ornament — whether in a house or on a canvas. It is unsurprising to find the rolling hillsides in his painting “Spring Plowing” turned into a textile design or the puffy and curvy trees in his garish “Overmantel Decoration” translated from a willow-ware china pattern.

Given his abiding interest in decoration, it’s easy to see how Wood has long been knocked as a superficial chronicler of rural America. He produced just a few good paintings, most of them within a mere four years. But you can’t help liking the guy for his optimism, patriotism and wry sense of humor.

WHAT: “Grant Wood’s Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic”

WHERE: Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Ave. at 17th Street NW

WHEN: Through July 16; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

Guessing game on female model

Wife or daughter? The female figure in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” has been interpreted both ways. Wood used his 30-year-old sister, Nan, as a model for the long-faced woman and his 62-year-old dentist for the bespectacled man clutching a pitchfork. Neither one owned the house with the arched window in the background; the artist based the facade on a Victorian wood-frame dwelling in Eldon, Iowa, that he had sketched previously. (The oil drawing of the house is also part of the Renwick Gallery exhibit.)

Though Wood intended the scene to represent a farmer and his daughter, most people assume the man and woman are married. It’s easy to see why. The two are posed like a Victorian couple in a 19th-century photograph, and their similarly shaped heads and sour expressions make them seem closer in age.

Pleased with national acclaim over his 1930 painting, Wood didn’t challenge public perception about the relationship between his two figures. His sister Nan, however, wasn’t too happy about being depicted as an old, humorless wife or frumpy daughter. So in 1933, the artist created a glamorous portrait of her with long blond hair and makeup and hung it in his living room. It’s in the exhibit, too.

Some consider “American Gothic” as lampooning the narrow-mindedness and repression of Middle America, while others see it as glorifying the moral virtues of the rural heartland. Wood set the record straight in 1941. “I did not intend this painting as a satire,” he wrote. “I endeavored to paint these people as they existed for me in the life I knew … they are basically solid and good people … I don’t feel that one gets at this fact better by denying their faults and fanaticism.”

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