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A Murder in the Red Barn? ? Grant Wood's Pitchfork Medium

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting
Steven Biel
W.W. Norton & Company

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

I once tried to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. For most of 40 minutes, I caught glimpses of it through the crowd, but I might as well have been looking at a dirty tea towel. When I finally got within spitting distance, I was looking at the white glare reflected off the Plexiglas installed to protect the fragile work, and through that, the faint traces of a familiar image: a reflection of my own face. Any hopes I might have had of examining the texture of the canvas, peering closely at brush strokes, gaining insight into the skill of the master's hand, or other ?authentic? experiences, were dashed; I felt as though I had spent an hour on the red carpet waiting to catch a glimpse of some famous actor's tuxedoed elbow. I wasn't especially disappointed, though: you can't go to the Louvre and not look at the Mona Lisa.

American Gothic probably ranks just below the Mona Lisa in the top-ten list of most-recognized, most-reproduced, and most-parodied works of art. It's such a familiar image that it's difficult to look at it and really see it. Just a glance produces a chuckle of recognition, and it's hard to dig any deeper. For that reason, Steven Biel begins his book about the painting with standard operating procedure for analyzing well-known works of art: bring the reader back to the work itself, and lead them to take a fresh look at it.

A bit of unembellished historical reporting on the painting is his first step. He chases down the answers to some simple questions, some more penetrating than others: who posed for the figures? Where and how did Wood find the white house in the background? What kind of tool is the farmer holding, a pitchfork or a hayfork? What is known about the painter's intentions, possible sources and influences, and so on? While nothing can possibly make the painting unfamiliar, this necessary step at least sets the reader up for the rest of the book, in which Biel undertakes the task of unfolding the complex layering of meanings that have grown up around this simple image of a man and a woman in front of a rural house.

For a start, Biel introduces the intriguing possibility that American Gothic might never have been exhibited at all: a trustee at the Art Institute of Chicago claims to have intervened at the last moment when the painting was initially rejected by the jury of the exhibition where it first reached the public's eye at the Institute's Forty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture. From there, he moves on to the surprising storm of criticism the painting engendered when it was first shown. It offended Iowans and other Middle Americans for a variety of reasons, ranging from its seeming representation of Iowan farmers as strait-laced and unhappy to its perceived depiction of a marriage between a younger man and an older woman.

Taken aback by the public's intense reaction, Wood ? never the most loquacious of artists ? seems to have clammed up a bit about his intentions. Understandably so: a good-natured parody of the people in your neighborhood is one thing, but a parody that incites threats of violence is something else again. In any case, Wood's caginess about what exactly he meant by American Gothic probably contributed to the creation of a vacuum of meaning around it, into which all sorts of projections promptly rushed, and have been rushing ever since. The rest of the book addresses these projections, and Biel shows in detail how flexible the image has been. Reproduced on everything from beach towels to coffee cups, it has also been called upon, in interpretations ranging from the art historical to the satirical, to represent a full spectrum of ideas about America: American values, American morality, American farm life. It has carried messages about farmers, about farmer's wives and daughters; about economic currents and social forces; about political virtue and vice; about hillbillies; about modernism and kitsch. Biel sifts through the pile, provides illustrations, and generally serves as a tireless guide as he picks his way through the morass.

There are moments when Biel seems to suffer from a classic graduate student's affliction: the desire to include anything remotely relevant, stretching a narrow subject over as many pages as possible. He writes about his first visit to the house that served as Wood's model; he writes about his second visit to the house. He writes about his desire to go inside the house: ?I fended off mosquitoes and thought that if I looked through the window from the inside out, I'd have done something that Grant Wood never did.? In all likelihood, Biel has done thousands of things Wood never did ? all of them equally irrelevant to understanding American Gothic.

But the project of looking at this painting and all of the bizarre cultural offshoots it has spawned is ultimately a worthy one. Even in parody, the meaning of the image persists in shifting: does it represent the closed minds and inflexible attitudes of Middle America, or the salt-of-the-earth worthiness of the inhabitants of America's heartland? Like the Plexiglas shield that protects the Mona Lisa, the cluster of associations that surround American Gothic is both a barrier and a window ? and depending on what angle you take, it can provide some interesting reflections.


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