Sunday, 27 March 2016

ART SUNDAY - GRANT WOOD

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” - Abraham Lincoln

Grant DeVolson Wood, (born February 13, 1891, near Anamosa, Iowa, U.S.—died February 12, 1942, Iowa City, Iowa), was an American painter who was one of the major exponents of Midwestern Regionalism, a movement that flourished in the United States during the 1930s. Wood was trained as a craftsman and designer as well as a painter. After spending a year (1923) at the Académie Julian in Paris, he returned to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where in 1927 he was commissioned to do a stained-glass window. Knowing little about stained glass, he went to Germany to seek craftsmen to assist him. While there he was deeply influenced by the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 16th century. Wood subsequently abandoned his Impressionist style and began to paint in the sharply detailed, realistic manner by which he is now known.

A portrait of his mother in this style, “Woman with Plants” (1929), did not attract attention, but in 1930 his “American Gothic” caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. The hard, cold realism of this painting and the honest, direct, earthy quality of its subject were unusual in American art. The work ostensibly portrays a farmer and his daughter (modelled for Wood by his dentist, B.H. McKeeby, and Wood’s own sister, Nan) in front of their farmhouse. As a telling portrait of the sober and hardworking rural dwellers of the Midwest, the painting has become one of the best-known icons of American art.

The meaning of “American Gothic” has been subjected to scrutiny since Wood painted it. Was it meant to be a homage to the strong values in the Midwest or was it a satire? Is it a husband and wife or a father and daughter? Wood’s own statements on its meaning were wishy-washy, leading to further ambiguity and debate. Open to so much interpretation, the “American Gothic” image lent itself to countless parodies in popular culture as well as in the political arena, in advertisements, in television shows such as “The Simpsons”, in albums, in comic books, on magazine covers, and by Jim Henson’s Muppets.

Wood became one of the leading figures of the Regionalist movement. Another well-known painting by him is “Daughters of Revolution” (1932), a satirical portrait of three unattractive old women who appear smugly satisfied with their American Revolutionary ancestry. In 1934 Wood was made assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. Among his other principal works are several paintings illustrating episodes from American history and a series of Midwestern rural landscapes that communicate a strong sense of American ambience by means of a skillful simplification of form.

Wood was married to Sara Sherman Maxon from 1935–38. She was considerably older and friends considered the marriage a mistake for him. Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa’s School of Art from 1934 to 1941. During that time, he supervised mural painting projects, mentored students, produced a variety of his own works, and became a key part of the University’s cultural community. It is thought that he was a closeted homosexual, and was attempted to be fired because of a relationship with his personal secretary. Critic Janet Maslin states that his friends knew him to be “homosexual and a bit facetious in his masquerade as an overall-clad farm boy.”  University administration dismissed the allegations and Wood would have returned as professor if not for his growing health problems.

On February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday, Wood died at the university hospital of pancreatic cancer. When Wood died, his estate went to his sister, Nan Wood Graham, the woman portrayed in American Gothic. When she died in 1990, her estate, along with Wood’s personal effects and various works of art, became the property of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Illustrated above is his “Young Corn” of 1931. This is a rolling idyllic farmland scene painted during the Great Depression, which was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place during the 1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. Perhaps it is Wood’s vision of the salvation of the nation’s economy by Americans returning to the land. However, the vision is ironic given that the Dirty Thirties soon dawned. This was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies during the 1930s; severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion (the Aeolian processes) caused the phenomenon.

The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. Wood’s vision was a utopian dream…

1 comment:

  1. Your timing is perfect! I am examining British inter-war landscape art this week with the students, and had totally forgotten about what Grant Wood had been painting over the other side of the Atlantic. His rolling rural landscapes were even more idyllic than I had remembered, given that America's farms were suffering terribly from the Depression.

    Thanks for the link
    Hels
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/inter-war-american-landscapes-grant.html

    ReplyDelete