From icon to parody, American artist Grant Wood's famous painting of a tight-lipped and somber-faced Iowa man and woman has undergone so many extreme makeovers that it is no longer easy to see the image without drawing upon its hundreds of other depictions.
The image is undeniably stamped on the American psyche, whether the pose is struck by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in "Simple Life" fashion or by Ken and Barbie dolls for Hallmark cards, or is portrayed in countless editorial cartoons of presidents and paupers or as a proposed World War II government propaganda poster. What is amazing, despite the ever-present nature of the image, is that its place in popular culture has been little studied until now.
Painted in 1930, Wood's "American Gothic" has for 75 years inspired outcry and praise, derision and reverence, depending as much on who is looking at the painting as in what era they happened to be looking at it. Satire? Realism? Social commentary? American folk art at its best? Jingoistic boosterism of the "booboisie" at its worst?
For writer Steven Biel, director of the history and literature program at Harvard University, "American Gothic" represents all of the above. It is a painting that encompasses not only the "solidity and goodness" of the characters depicted outside this small white house with the gothic window in Eldon, Iowa, but also their "faults and fanaticism."
This is evident in the cold, thin steel of the hayfork standing as ominously rigid as the characters in the painting, as well as in the wild lock that seems to have come loose from under one ear of the otherwise tightly wound crop of hair on the woman's head.
The painting first gained public notoriety in the 1930s after winning an award from the Art Institute of Chicago, and became known to the general public through newspaper reprintings of the image and later through television, where it was mainly portrayed in parody and marketing gimmicks. Over the years, the painting became a national icon intertwined with national myth. Every decade or two, "American Gothic" has taken on new meaning as generations have re-created it for their own needs.
One Iowa farm wife proposed that Wood should have his head "bashed in" for satirizing Iowa farm folk in this way. Likewise, East Coast intellectuals, led by H.L. Mencken, promoted the idea that the painting was a satire on the great cultural wasteland of the Midwest, with its barren and puritanical pair representing a backward interior of "stifling conformity and false values," as Biel puts it, increasingly vying for the American soul.
Sometimes known early on as "An Iowa Farmer and His Wife," Wood's subjects for his painting were his sister, Nan Wood Graham, and Byron McKeeby, an Eldon dentist. (Wood picked them as models, and the two posed separately for the painting, neither of them in front of the house.) The ambiguity over the relationship between the woman and the man in the painting has often led viewers to wonder what goes on behind those curtains in the gothic window. Whether the woman was a daughter or a wife made a difference in what the furrowed brows and stern gazes of these country folk really told.
Although Wood shied away from categorizing the composition as satire, he didn't help clear up matters regarding its interpretation. He made conflicting remarks on the subject and had earlier professed a devotion to the Mencken intelligentsia. His later disavowal of that same intellectualism in favor of exploring the minutia and machinery of his native Iowa also added confusion to how this work was viewed.
Wood's murkiness only fueled speculation. Some critics interpreted the work as irony, satire or social commentary, while others saw deeper meanings in it, including "deeply closeted" homosexuality and a pseudo-romantic nativism that spoke to fascist tendencies in America.
Still others came up with more pleasant descriptions of the couple, as the personification of hard-working, uncomplaining, salt-of-the-earth types, of the simple and the good nature of American rural people -- the pair as an enduring symbol of America's heartland. Beyond all the haggling over the meaning beneath the stern gazes of our odd couple, the painting has also taken on a pop cultural life of its own. Biel thoughtfully takes the reader through these transformations, and perhaps most important, the social factors that contributed to each new view.
Biel expertly describes how "American Gothic" has been the prime example of Americana put through the grinder of the culture wars, whether used as the satirical champion of the anti-Puritans in the early '30s, for the Depression-era mythology of the hard-working down-and-out, in the patriotic personifications of the World War II era, in the revolutionary revisions of the image for 1960s black and feminist liberation, as a symbol of the "American Heartland" during the Reagan era or as a "camp" advertising symbol.