The Strange Regionalism of ‘American Gothic’

For the Cincinnati Art Museum, getting the Art Institute of Chicago to loan “American Gothic” (through Nov. 16) is a coup.

click to enlarge "American Gothic"
"American Gothic"

The wall text for Cincinnati Art Museum’s Conversations Around American Gothic exhibit has an excerpt from a 1934 Time article about Regionalism, the then-new U.S. art movement associated with “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood of Iowa.

In part, it says: “The War [World War I] took the public’s mind temporarily off art but at its end French artists were sitting on top of the world. U.S. painters, unable to sell at home or abroad, tried copying the French, turned out a profusion of spurious Matisses and Picassos, cheerfully joined the crazy parade of Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism. Painting became so deliberately unintelligible that it was no longer news when a picture was hung upside down.”

Time also points out how the “direct representation” of Regionalism contrasts with the introspective abstractions of Modernism — a development presumably appealing to the American public.

It just so happens that on a wall outside the American Gothic exhibit galleries, where Wood’s famous 1930 painting is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of our museum’s absolute greatest treasures, Spanish artist Joan Miró’s 1947 “Mural for Terrace Plaza Hotel.”

Clearly a work of introspective abstraction, surreal at that, its ethereal and imaginative beauty moves all who see it. It is a landmark, a direction sign, for the course that 20th century art followed.

So much for the superiority of Regionalism.

But hopefully, we can look at and appreciate an artwork for how good it is in and of itself. And “American Gothic” is a painting with a singular pull. To me, it isn’t even an example of “direct representation.” It’s too mysteriously introspective, cryptic even, in the meanings and associations of its depiction and placement of a stern Depression-era farmer and his daughter.

The gifted Wood made decisions about technique that have proved wise with time. It is a portrait rendered with a pictorial flatness that gives the two subjects a simultaneously super-real and surreal presence, like American folk art with an ulterior motive.

The odd church-like Gothic Revival window on the farmhouse behind them (based on one in Eldon, Iowa) contrasts with the prongs of the pitchfork the man holds. The two give the work a religious dimension. But then, would that make the farmer the devil? Wood used models for his subjects — his sister and a local dentist — and that just adds to the strangeness.

The artist seems to be hiding something from us in his choices. Maybe that’s why popular culture has embraced and parodied it, like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” It’s not like the few other paintings in this show by Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. Indeed, the work is closer in spirit, if not style, to Edward Hopper.

For the Cincinnati Art Museum, getting the Art Institute of Chicago to loan “American Gothic” (through Nov. 16) is a coup. According to Julie Aronson, Cincinnati’s curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings, the loan came about because Cincinnati owns another major Wood painting, 1932’s “Daughters of Revolution,” which also is in this show. The art museum agreed to loan that to the Art Institute for an upcoming show on American paintings from the 1930s, which will also travel to Paris and London.

“Daughters” is intentionally satiric — and the lesser work because of it, despite its many strengths. Three elderly members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) stand in a “we are not amused” manner, one stiffly and formally holding a Blue Willow China teacup as if all feeling has been frozen out of her hand. They’re in front of a print of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze.

Wood had been miffed at the DAR for complaining about his use of a German company for a window at a post-World War I memorial building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Leutze was a German-American, a not-incidental point.)

It’s worth noting this painting obliquely criticized the DAR seven years before the group so shamed itself by preventing African-American singer Marian Anderson from singing at its Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.

But it’s also worth wondering what would have happened if Wood had tried the same thing after World War II? After World War I much of America saw all parties involved as victims, so it was easy for Wood to portray the DAR as sourpusses. It wouldn’t be so easy to be forgiving after the next war.

I digress, but the point of this show is to have Conversations Around it.

See for admission prices.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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