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Art of the heartland

The Economist bookreview July 2, 2005
American Gothic: A life of America’s most famous painting by Steven Biel; Norton; 160 pages

IT IS at once an icon and an iconoclastic image of Bible-belt America. Virtually everyone who has seen the painting of the hatchet-faced farmer holding his pitchfork that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago (or the altered version that appears in the opening sequence of “Desperate Housewives”) will recognise it as a famous picture. Few, however, will remember that its proper title is “American Gothic” and fewer still can recall the name of the man who painted it as Grant Wood. In this ingenious gem of a book, Stephen Biel, a professor of art history at Harvard University, weaves together a rich cultural history of this unforgettable picture and asks why it has become, for better or for worse, America's most popular painting.

Surprisingly for a work that appears to invoke old-fashioned values, “American Gothic” met with a mixed reception when it was first unveiled in 1930. Locals saw the strait-laced Iowa couple as an insulting parody of their provincialism. Farmers' wives complained that it portrayed small-town women as prim, self-righteous and out of fashion with modern times.

At a time when the Scopes “monkey” trial, which upheld the teaching of evolution in schools, was still fresh in people's minds, some noted in the mid-western man's ape-like features a reference to the primitive missing link. Urban sophisticates loved it, of course, precisely because they saw it as a parody. No less a critic than H.L. Mencken praised this portrait of the “booboisie” as an attack on the philistinism and puritanism he thought was running rife in middle America. But by 1943, H.W. Janson, a well-known art historian, was deriding the work as promoting an isolationist fiction of rural purity and self-sufficiency. A refugee from Nazi Europe, Janson called it anti-art and compared its agrarian idealism to fascist social realism of the Third Reich.

Throughout the intervening years, “American Gothic” has been seen alternately as an emblem of the honest, self-reliant, hard-working values of the small town and as a lampoon. Both “The Music Man”, a Broadway musical, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” turned the austere couple into a singing, dancing slice of middle America—for very different purposes. After the September 11th attacks, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon with the stony-faced pair wearing “I love NY” T-shirts, expressing an urban ambivalence at New Yorkers' sudden adoption by the heartland.

The artist himself never gave much away, insisting that the work was not meant as a satire and that he was painting mid-western types rather than individuals. “American Gothic”, he said, was not a portrait: Wood had merely asked his sister Nan and the local dentist to pose for him, dressing them up and adapting their faces into a stylised, anonymous image of a man and his daughter who would fit into the now famous clapboard house in Eldon, Iowa. To Wood, who died in 1942 at the age of only 51, the most important thing about the painting was “whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it”.

In art historical terms, “American Gothic” might also be seen as Wood's regionalist manifesto: “there's no place like home”. Like his fellow mid-westerner, Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, Wood had journeyed “over the rainbow”. He had lived in Paris three times during the 1920s, and travelled through Europe before returning to find art in his native state of Iowa. Perhaps in the grim, unflattering expressions of his sitters we can also see traces of the Flemish Renaissance master Hans Memling, whom he admired, as well as the eerie realism of Weimar Germany's “New Objectivity” painters, grafted on to a mid-western homestead.

In cultural terms, Wood's masterpiece is harder to read. It is both wholesome and creepy; both American and Gothic. The longer you look at this stark image, the more it defies the possibility of being read at face value. Rather than celebrate traditional American values, it complicates them. Mr Biel's book is a study of how the heartland we see here came to represent America. It is also a salient reminder of how a work of art can say so much to so many in the strangest and most unlikely of circumstances.