Revealing how the art of 1930s America betrays a nation in flux.
There are few modern paintings as iconic as Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Since winning the bronze medal at the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition in 1930 it has gained cult status; parodies have spanned from a send up in The Rocky Horror Picture Show to reproductions by the Muppets.
Yet what initially appears as a simple portrait of a rural farming couple from the American Mid West, is in fact an elaborately contrived construction of the artist’s imagination. After driving past the small white Carpenter Gothic house visible in the background, Woods decided he would paint the building and ‘the kind of people’ he fancied should live there.
The farmer was his dentist (chosen for his ‘strong hands’) and the woman his sister, each was dressed in costume and sat separately for the painting. Woods envisioned it to be a celebration of the American heartlands; as the Great Depression brought unemployment, poverty and hardship the image represented the simpler life of times gone by.
Yet some audiences saw it differently – one farmer’s wife was so enraged by what she saw as a scathing attack on country values, she threatened to bite off Woods’ ear.
For the first time in its history the painting travels to Europe in 2017, where it appears as the centrepiece in the Royal Academy’s exhibition exploring life in America after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
It is joined by 45 other works that echo the uncertainty of the era as rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration fractured the nation, dividing those who willed on change from those who hid from it. Edward Hopper, Georgia O’ Keeffe and Jackson Pollock are among the other 20th century greats that feature.