Thursday, June 7, 2018

Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum of Art

I literally turned on my heels and walked out of the first room of the Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art, sure that I had somehow wandered into the wrong show. A corn cob chandelier hung from the ceiling, seriously fun sculptures made from bottle caps and other found items were behind glass and a wrought iron piece or two was on the walls. Wasn't Grant Wood the artist who painted "American Gothic"? Yes, but there's more to his story. Luckily, I was able to tag along with a docent who shared her knowledge of Wood's career.

Wood's earliest work was in the Arts and Craft style. He was a Midwestern artist making a living by creating art for homes and public buildings. The corncob chandelier -- along with several paintings -- were done by Wood for a corn-themed room in  the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids. It was the first time he incorporated place into his work, a device he returns to in his later career.

In the period leading up to "American Gothic," Wood worked in a looser style reminiscent of the Impressionist paintings he had seen in Paris. In "Arnold Comes of Age," Woods employed a combination of styles. Arnold, who was the artist's studio assistant, is painted in a realistic style with precise lines Wood felt were consistent with American sensibilities. The background, however, is atmospheric. The butterfly on Arnold's sleeve has transitioned from the protection of its cocoon to the outside world. The bathers in the near background represent frivolity and youth; the hayfields represent work and maturity. A flowing river creates a line of demarcation between these two phases of life. 

Shortly after completing this painting, Wood created his cultural masterpiece "American Gothic." It may come as a surprise to learn that the inspiration for this painting was the Carpenter Gothic style house in the background. The window--reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals in Europe--seemed to Wood a bit out of place on a farmhouse in Southwestern Iowa. He was inspired to envision the people who might live in this home. As with much of Wood's work, "American Gothic" lives on the cusp between satire and celebration.

Wood enlisted his sister and his dentist to pose for the painting. While many assume the pair are husband and wife, Wood intended them to be father and daughter. Their elongated faces and bodies mimic the shape of the window. And while it's hard to see in this picture, the pattern on the woman's apron matches the pattern in the window. The pair are serious and obviously hard-working; the father can't even let go of his pitchfork for the time it took to pose for the picture. 

Wood submitted the painting to the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition, where it won third prize. In the words of our docent, the painting "went viral" -- as much as something could in 1930. 

East Coast viewers loved the painting, perhaps in part because they considered themselves so much more sophisticated than this pair. (As a side note, Wood wasn't embraced by the East Coast art world as his career progressed. He was vocal about his dislike of abstract art, which was all the rage in New York. Wood believed viewers couldn't connect with in the same way they could with realistic paintings. For their part, East Coast art lovers felt his Regionalist style of art was a bit provincial.)

Midwestern audiences, however, weren't quite sure what to make of "American Gothic." Was Wood making fun of them? The answer is probably not. Our docent noted the clothing style dated back to the late 19th century, one indication that Wood was memorializing an agrarian lifestyle rather than commenting on his neighbors.

One painting in which Wood was satirizing his subjects is his "Daughters of the Revolution, 1932." Our docent called this work a "revenge painting." In 1928, Wood completed a 24' x 20' stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids depicting Our Lady of Peace and Victory and soldiers from each of the wars fought up to that time. But the dedication for the window did not take place until 1955, long after Wood's death. The reason: The DAR objected to the window on grounds that the glass was not made in America.  

In the painting, Wood poses the priggish women against the backdrop of the dynamic "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. (Wood selected the "models" for his caricatures from a DAR book.)  They are drinking tea, a sly reference to the Boston Tea party. I can only assume they were not amused.

And then there's the somewhat unusual "Parson Weems' Fable" from 1939. Weems was responsible for the still-told tale of little George Washington unable to lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. As classic as the story is, it was made up by Weems to show the honesty of our nation's first president. 

In Wood's painting, Weems pulls back the curtain on the drama he envisioned. Young George is showing his father the axe with which he cut down the tree.  (You know it's George because Wood conveniently put his adult head on the child-sized body.)  I particularly appreciate the cherry-like tassels on the curtain and the tree that itself looks like a large cherry. Wood adds some political commentary to the painting--inadvertently, art historians think--with what would have been slaves in the background happily harvesting a cherry tree.

If you haven't already seen the Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney, you'll probably miss it, since it closes on June 10th. But if you happen to be in Iowa, there are some nice Grant Wood viewing opportunities.  Cedar Rapids is home to his studio, the stained glass window in the Veterans Memorial Building and a museum of art that owns some of Wood's paintings. And for an interactive stop, head to Eldon to see the house that inspired "American Gothic." You can even dress up as the pair and have your picture taken for your next holiday card. Can anyone say "road trip"?  


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