Art critic Robert Hughes once remarked of this arresting image, painted in 1930 by Grant Wood :"Along with the Mona Lisa and Whistler's Mother ... it's one of the three paintings that every American knows."
As a non-American, I first came across American Gothic flipping through an art textbook back in high school and was immediately struck by it. An image from a different time, different culture, different country, there was a strangeness about it that fascinated me. Yet beyond that, and despite the unfamiliarity, something about the painting resonated so deep within my psyche I couldn't take my eyes off the page. It struck a chord. Why was that...?
Intiitially I knew nothing about the the painting, apart from what I saw before before me and the artist's name. It was a static, frozen image of a man and woman yet the more one looked, the more things revealed themselves..there was more going on beneath the surface than initially suggested.
Who were the people in the painting and what relationship did they have to each other? Was the woman a wife, a sister..a daughter perhaps? Clearly this was a rural couple, as evidenced by the farmhouse and the pitchfork, at once menacing and emblematic of labour and farm life.
The patriarch looks out directly at the viewer with dark, intense eyes and a stern, uncompromising expression, while the woman, who appears younger, looks across somewhere to the side. Her eyes are softer and blue and her expression is distant and unconnected and the tenseness of her brows knitted together suggests stress or anxiety. While her appearance is neat and orderly --the sombre black and white dress covered by a practical apron--there is a small suggestion of dishevelment in the lock of stray hair dangling from her otherwise perfect hairstyle. A decorative cameo at the woman's neck is the only hint of feminine treasure and that this woman may have dreams and desires beyond the hard pragmatism the image conjurs.
These two figures dominate the scene, positioned as they are to take up three-quarters of the painting, but beyond them is the farmhouse, white and clean, a verandah to the left with homey potted plants and a red barn off to the side. Behind the house a lush landcape is suggested. Most interesting of all, apart from the figures themselves, is the upstairs window, placed between the man and woman. Possibly a bedroom, a white lace curtain obscures the mysteries within and the viewer's eye is inexorably drawn to this area.
Although everyone will attach their own meaning to the work, this writer fancies the painting represents repression, with desire and longing residing in the darkly hidden room behind the upstairs window. Repression is reflected in the tightly shut mouths of the two figures, the furrowed brow of the woman, the male hand clasped firmly around the pitchfork and even in the darkness of the clothes against the light background. The farmer, whose blue overalls, black jacket and wire-rimmed spectacles give him a half preacher/half labourer look, stands in front of the woman, as if to constrain and dominate her and his direct look seems to dare the viewer to challenge his position.
Perhaps this repressive element is the chord it struck with me when I first came across the painting. I felt something bump against my brain...a recognition. Of course a painting need not be analysed to be appreciated..it just has to be 'felt' emotionally but it's interesting to attempt it.
The woman in the painting is in fact meant to represent the spinster daughter of the farmer and rather prosaically, Wood's models for the painting were his own dentist and his sister.
Grant Wood, who died in 1942, was an obscure American artist, trained in Europe, who wanted to paint a Gothic revival style house along with the kind of people who might live there : “I saw a trim white cottage, with a trim white porch – a cottage built on severe Gothic lines. This gave me an idea. That idea was to find two people who by their severely straight-laced characters would fit into such a home."
The painting won him a bronze medal and $300 in the 1930 Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture held at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Though the models are real, the characters are figments of the artist's imagination and whatever Grant intended, (if he intended anything specific) has been variously interpreted as a satire of Mid-Western puritanism, a representation of the Protestant hard-work ethic, a statement on backwoods incest and even, as Robert Hughes suggested "early camp". Many have seen the woman not just as repressed and dominated but cold and dissapproving. It seems American Gothic rings bells all over the place...sending out different tunes to different viewers. Maybe that's what makes it so special. For a painting to be so endlessly parodied and so far embedded into popular culture, it must at some deep-rooted level connect with a large number of people.
Washington Post Staff Writer , Micheal O'Sullivan, who thinks the painting 'hilarious', gives an interesting take on Woods in a 2006 article, Grant Woods Studio: Birthplace of American Gothic. As well as being an artist, Woods was also a carpenter, designer, stain-glass, jewellery and wrought-iron hardware maker. O'Sullivan posits:
The flavor of "American Gothic" is more truthful, in a sense, to the artistic qualities Wood came to admire and champion -- clear-eyed, solid, precise craftsmanship -- but the painting was not without a certain jaundiced detachment that kept the artist from ever wholly embracing the rustics he depicted. This humorous distance (and it's still a rather hilarious picture) is what Hughes meant by camp.
So is the painting a coldly aesthetic construction rather than an 'embraced' depiction? There is a detachment in the painting, that in fact, heightens the impact of the scene but I think it is also true that the many subtleties and nuances...the humanness, saves it from being viewed merely as a crafted design piece or an amusing slice of camp..
In the 1930s the painting did not inspire universal admiration -many thought it was too 'grim and serious', especially at a time when Depression-era America was grim and serious enough. To add to this, some Iowa folk thought they were being made fun of:
Mrs Inez Keck of Washta said they looked “inordinately solemncholy” and might have been to a funeral. Mrs Earl Robinson, from the Iowa town of Collins, declared that being true to life wasn’t good enough and that next time around the painter should “choose something wholesome to look at and not such oddities. I advise him to hang this portrait in one of our fine Iowa cheese factories. That woman’s face would sour milk".
From an article by Roger Sandall in Arts and Letters
American Gothic remains one of my favourite paintings. There are so many different interpretations of the one scene to be had and I suspect it's this very ambiguity that gives the picture its strength, in spite of its ubiquity and the fact that it's been parodied to the hilt and back again. In fact it's been parodied so often that that aspect doesn't really work any more. It'd be a pretty tired and unimaginative satirist who would still use this painting to lampoon any sacred cows.
When I first saw it as an Australian teenager I understood little of the Mid Western cultural references and I thought it was much older than it is...it seemed so removed from my suburban context. It didn't really matter that in my ignorance I'd bypassed the essential "Americanness" of it ...as a painting of a man and a woman there was enough to fascinate and interest the viewer. No matter how hackneyed an image it has become, I feel sure it will continue to intrigue.
For more art, read on:
- Jeffrey Smart
I first encountered Jeffrey Smart on an excursion to the Victorian Gallery and I too was instantly captivated and by the very same painting that had so mesmerised my friend years before.
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