Under the heading «Why is it a Masterpiece» editorial asks experts to explain, why this or that work has been recognized. In today’s issue Gleb Simonov explains how «American Gothic» by Grant Wood was the most recognized works of American art of the twentieth century.
Poet, photographer. Born in Moscow, he lives and works in New York.
Grant DeVolson Wood
American artist. Depicting rural life of the American Midwest. His painting «American Gothic» (1930) – one of the most recognizable and parodied US works of the twentieth century. Stored in the Chicago Art Institute, where it was first exhibited and where the author studied.
The dusty side road. Rare trees. Houses – white, low, standing far apart. Untidy areas. Overgrown Field. American flag. It looks like Eldon, Iowa – the city of a thousand people, where in 1930, no one has known Grant Wood, arrived at the small provincial exhibition, noticed in the distance a very ordinary rural house with inappropriate pointed Gothic window on the second floor.
This house and the window – the only constant in the sketches for the painting, whose task was to portray the inhabitants of the most stereotypical American Midwest.
No one knows why the original owners of the house decided to make the top window in the style of church architecture. Perhaps to make it through high furniture. But the reason could be purely decorative, «Carpenter Gothic», as referred to provincial architectural style in the United States the second half of the XIX century, had a penchant for the simple wooden houses with a pair of cheap meaningless decoration. And that’s exactly what it looks like most of the States outside the city, wherever you go.
The painting itself uncomplicated. Two figures – an elderly farmer, clutching a pitchfork and his daughter, a spinster in Puritan dress, pulled out, apparently from his mother. In the background – the famous house and a window. Curtains drawn – perhaps in honor of mourning, even though at the time this tradition was gone. Fork symbolism has not been elucidated, but Wood emphasizes its definitely in the lines of stitches farmer overalls (besides the forks – is an inverted box).
Flowers, which was not in the initial sketches – Geranium and Sansevieria – traditionally represent melancholy and foolishness. They appear in other paintings of Wood.
All this plus a direct frontal composition refers both to the deliberately flat medieval portrait, and to the manner of the early twentieth century photographers to shoot people on the background of their homes – roughly the same stoic faces and a little indirect gaze.
In the early 30’s picture was seen as a parody of the population of the Midwest. During the Great Depression it has become an icon of the authentic spirit of the American pioneers. In the 60’s again become a travesty and it continues to be to this day. But the parody – a genre, isolated in time: he clings to the current and forgotten along with it. Why now are still remember?
States have a complex relationship with history. In large metropolises in the historical memory, there are usually only a few major events relatively recently – for example, in New York, it will be the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island and 9/11. Even Hudson not remember. On the frontier, on the contrary, the history of everywhere – Indian tribes, the war for independence, civil, ethnic colonies, the first horse-drawn road runaway missionaries – and this is the only place really intense (albeit short) history.
In the gray area between the frontier and the metropolis no history or culture. This secondary cities, the only function of which is to be populated. It is so, and Eldon, Iowa – and that’s why Wood was there originally. The exhibition, which came to an artist, set itself the aim of bringing art to the masses, and the city was chosen as the appropriate – an empty, boring, aside from just the one street and one church.
And here we must remember what is Gothic.
Gothic emerged in the XII century, the desire to restore one Abbe dear to his heart the old church – in particular, fill it with daylight – and quickly won the hearts of architects, allowing the build up, already, and at the same time use less stone.
With the advent of the Renaissance gothic style left in the shade as much as to the XIX century, which has gained a second wind on the rise of interest in the Middle Ages and in the peak of the Industrial Revolution. It was then that the world has successfully invented a new contemporary issues, the effects of which have not been solved so far, and look at the past tried to find some alternative – giving us not only the Gothic style, but also the Pre-Raphaelites, interest in occult practices and – puritanical conservatism.
Gothic’re not in stone. Gothic – a vision of the world.
Gothic’re not in stone. Gothic – a vision of the world.
In the canon of the late Middle Ages, it gave the right occasion for inspiration. Her world was still not about the man and did not belong to man, but he still was beautiful. And all of these stained-glass windows, columns and arches, too, gave even the cold, even inhuman, but still beautiful.
So, Puritan morality and carpenter’s style as its prophet – is actually diminished Gothic. This view of man in the lens of double predestination, when the question of his salvation resolved initially, and determine this by only by whether he buttons on itself the topmost button.
Just in the Old World had, in addition to this button, yet it was a culture. And in the New was nothing but potatoes and Indian graves. Only, and it remains what to do at the second floor of a beautiful gothic window as the only sign of the continuity of this culture, is now reduced to a couple of painted boards set at right angles.
Puritan morality and carpenter’s style – it actually diminished Gothic.
The appearance of the picture it is in 1930 should be exactly the same scenario: an appeal to the old portrait in defiance of everything going on in the central points of civilization. And this new industrialization and excessive abundance of 20s, and contemporary art movement in the direction of absolute abstraction.
In this sense, Wood piercing lucky. Middling painter, he had not written anything worthwhile before any «American Gothic», nor after it. It was enough for exactly one opening, the scale of which he himself is not likely to get it. But which covered a dense intersection of cultural pressures that it arbitrarily small-town actuality is not exhausted yet. And it is exhausted in any foreseeable future.