I wanted to use the occasion of the first of this fall’s heavily choreographed political conventions to revisit a painter powerfully associated with America’s myths of itself, a painter I believe to be both misunderstood and underrated – Grant Wood. Yes, that Grant Wood, painter of American Gothic, one of the most familiar and most parodied pictures ever. But most of his work is far less known, including such subversive takes on American mythmaking as Daughters of Revolution and Parson Weems’ Fable.
Wood remains a troubling and marginal figure for many reasons. As a young artist, he went off to Europe, to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France, but unlike Marsden Hartley, for example, he didn’t become an abstractionist. Instead, the key influences on Wood were the late-medieval/early Renaissance artists then widely referred to as “primitives”. Both Northern and Italian primitives helped shape Wood’s emerging aesthetic. He was also influenced by the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) movement in Weimar Germany. These artists rejected what they perceived as the solipsism of the Expressionists, both their introverted subject matter and their painterly style. The New Objectivists sought to portray the facts of modern life – often seen with a jaundiced eye – in a crisp, clear style.
In his maturity, Wood left behind the bland, pleasant post-Impressionism of his student work and developed an ostentatiously smooth, glossy style, in which the very trees sometimes appear to have been machined-turned on a production line. Visible traces of the artist’s own idiosyncratic touch are banished in favor of a hallucinatory clarity. This choice again shows the influence of both Northern and Italian “primitives”, many of whom painted in tempera, a medium which by its nature tends to obscure the individual brushstroke. It also suggests the Precisionist style adopted in those same years by artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. This in itself was almost enough to make Wood the object of critical suspicion in the postwar years, when the expressive brushstroke, the artist’s touch, was all.
And Wood would turn his back on the metropolis, too, in all its forms. He returned to his native Iowa, championing regionalism and supporting public art projects that aided – and celebrated – the rural and small-town world he loved. However, Wood himself did not fit neatly into this world – as his recent biographer asserts, he was in all likelihood gay. (Though, ironically, it seems the only people who ever used this to make trouble for him were his supposedly “advanced” artistic colleagues at the University of Iowa. Neighbors were proud enough of the local boy made good to overlook what they might not care to acknowledge.) The image of the perpetual bachelor in overalls, sharing his tiny studio with his aging mother and unmarried sister, dreaming of founding a heartland art colony, is a poignant one.
Wood himself existed at a strangely oblique angle to the all-American world he painted, and this perspective informed his work more than you might think. The only work whose satirical intent he openly acknowledged was the wonderfully titled Daughters of Revolution, in which three elderly members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, all pursed lips and tightly confined hair, stand in front of an aging, visibly foxed print of Washington Crossing the Delaware. As they stare balefully at the viewer, one holds up a willow ware teacup – emblem of middle American WASP gentility – her pinky artfully crooked. The irony of these women as keepers of the revolutionary flame (something emphasized by Wood’s decision to drop the article, leaving us with the base abstraction of Revolution) is delicious.
Wood performs an even more complex deconstruction of an American myth in Parson Weems’ Fable, which illustrates the famous cherry-tree incident invented, or at least heavily embellished, by Weems for his Life of Washington, published in 1800. The composition clearly references Charles Willson Peale’s self-portrait of 1822, The Artist in his Museum, in which the painter and collector is seen lifting a tasseled red curtain to reveal his carefully ordered gallery of natural and artistic wonders. This alerts the viewer to the fictional, constructed nature of the scene, as does the placement on young George’s childish body of a head taken straight from the familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait used on the one-dollar bill. The improbably round and perfect cherries dangling from the improbably round and perfect tree exactly echo the bright red ball fringe of the curtain. In the background, two African slaves pick cherries from an identical tree, under a dark cloud that threatens to blot out the bright sunshine that illuminates Washington and his father.
The visual rhythm of cherries, cherry trees and fringe is picked up again by the round green trees of the distant hillside, where a geometrically ordered orchard or plantation has been inserted into the wilderness. The counterpoint of green and red further animates the composition. The bright scarlet of Washington’s father’s coat leads the eye down his extended arm to young Washington’s hatchet, painted the same scarlet. This scarlet is contrasted to both the deeper crimson of the curtain, and the mellow brick tones of the house; the cherries echo all these reds. The bottle-green of Weems’ own coat forms a complement to the scarlet jacket, just as the positioning of his arms suggests a variation on the elder Washington’s pose. His coat harmonizes with the soft greens of the landscape, which also complement the reds.
It is a picture about imposing order on chaos – on the chaos of history and experience, the chaos of nature and wilderness, and the moral chaos of a democratic republic that tolerated slavery. But, the painting tells us, to impose order is also to fictionalize, to distort. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind in a season when we are being presented with carefully packaged versions of history, complete with carefully articulated morals. As I noted at this time last year, the transformation of history into a neat allegory of vice and virtue does violence to its real complexity – not that that bothers those who find that complexity threatening.
Another of Wood’s strategies was to use his pictorial style to emphasize the enigmatic oddity of myths and legends, to those not already familiar with them, and the intensely local nature of mythmaking. The way Wood transforms Concord, Massachusetts into a toy-town viewed from above in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere has frequently been commented on. The stylized cliffs and trees behind the town, and the spire of the church, suggest the settings of those curious scenes from the lives of the saints appearing on individual panels of the altarpieces painted by Italian “primitives” such as Sassetta, which so often combine mute violence with an eerie stillness and a certain storybook charm (Compare, example, the endlessly repeated conical trees of Sassetta’s St Anthony the Hermit Tortured by Devils with the trees of Parson Weem’s Fable. ) The influence of this art on Wood’s Dinner for Threshers, which exalts farm life, has been noted, but it also hangs over such works as The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, in which we’re asked to contemplate the humble rural birthplace of a man who rose to the presidency – only to supervise the country’s slide into the Great Depression (Wood made the painting in 1931, while Hoover was still in the White House and the Depression was tightening its grip). Who? we find ourselves asking, as before a panel painting of some obscure patron saint. Why?
There’s no question as to Wood’s love of this landscape. In echoing the sacral art of another time, he certainly hopes to bestow its aura on the cornfields and frame houses of his native ground. The last painting he completed, Spring in Town, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post shortly after his death on February 12, 1942, not long after the United States’ entry into the Second World War. In it, the child seen pulling down the branch of a blossoming fruit tree is almost the mirror image of one of the boys gathering palms in Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem. I remember being told in Art History 101 that the boys in the trees prefigured the Crucifixion; this detail seems to link this spring morning to a much larger narrative of death and resurrection. But Wood’s reverence was certainly not uncritical, and he is quick to remind the viewer that consolatory tales almost always represent a reordering of messy reality, and rarely give us the whole truth.