Going Back to Iowa: the World of Grant Wood

Haven, Janet A. , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Railton, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia

Going back to Iowa, for Grant Wood, was the formative experience in his artistic life. It was the return to his home state that prompted his painting to take a distinctive turn--towards regionalism, towards American subjects, towards the nineteenth century, towards an affectionate and yet ironic vision of his country and its history. His American audience is borne back alongside him, in time as well as in space, to an idealized world of memory; it is a place that most have not seen but one that we, as Americans, remember as our own. Grant Wood undeniably played to his American audience. He cast himself in the part of the midwestern farmer, a character in myth-laced agrarian world he had created. Almost without exception, Wood wore overalls for photographs. Most of the pictures preserved of the Iowan artist suggest that he spent his days in his studio clad in the sort of garb his famous farmer of American Gothic wore; that farmer, actually Wood's dentist, stands with calm menace, defending the home that immediately--upon its unveiling at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930-- become an icon for middle America with all its positive and negative connotations. It seems no coincidence that Wood, defender of the regionalism movement and public denouncer of artistic colonialism, would choose visually to ally himself with his most well-known creation, and by extension, with his farmer's implied stance. Not surprisingly, Americans and critics took Wood at his visual word; he was accepted as an American product, through and through, and his popularity peaked in the late 1930's. Wood's gentle satires and penetrating portraits of the mid-Westerners around him, as well as his sensual, geometric landscapes, endeared him to the American public of the Depression years. His vision of the American heartland seemed to touch a troubled country deeply; his paintings offered a land that responded to cultivation lusciously rather than blowing away in the tornados of the dustbowl, as well as farmers and their families who offered a bounty with round and blushing cheeks. On the surface, Wood appeared to critics somewhat naive: the hometown painter who offered a national vision of hope during the Depression years, but whose art became tired and untimely in the internationalist atmosphere following the second World War. Wood and his apparently down-home attitudes had been summarily dismissed by the critics by the half- century mark. What is interesting to consider is the reality of Grant Wood's experiences. Although largely a self-trained artist, Wood spent significant amounts of time painting in Europe. He organized his own show in Paris in the late 1920's; he traveled extensively during the 1930's promoting regionalism as an art movement and showing paintings in New York and Chicago galleries. Wood, for a small-town American of the 1920's and 30's, was surprisingly cosmopolitan and well-traveled. He is widely quoted as denouncing his European training and remarking that "all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa" (qtd. in "Wood, Hard-Bitten"). It seems doubtful that Wood felt less than wholeheartedly about his "return from Bohemia" or the regionalist movement; quite to the contrary, he dedicated the last six years of his life to instilling the values of regionalism in the University of Iowa art program against strong resistance. However, Wood's critical reception at the time paid little attention to the nuances of the paintings he had given his country to look at; to his contemporaries, Wood was always the "painter in overalls" who promoted the imagined landscape of America and peopled it with identifiable types (Pickering). Much overlooked is the irony that Wood seems to have included in many of his paintings; it is the irony of affection and understanding, but also of distance and sophistication. Wood had seen the world outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa and had chosen to return to his home, but he surely did not forget the inevitable impressions and comparisons that come with travel. Perhaps most telling is Wood's Self-Portrait. Begun in 1932, the painter originally depicted himself in the trademark overalls; by 1940, he had painted the overalls out in favor of a v-necked shirt that appears to be something like an artist's smock. It is as if Wood wanted to leave an image of himself, not as a regionalist, nor as a farmer, but first as an artist, more complex than his regionalist rhetoric would account for. His gaze in this painting is direct and severe; there is none of the inviting friendliness of his publicity photographs in overalls. Nor, however, is there evident the protective menace of American Gothic's farmer. Wood no longer appears to be either defending or representing the mid-Western landscape stretching out behind him. In this portrait, he is fully the artist: a watcher, interpreter, and eller of tales, both a part of and apart from his subject matter. It seems that the showmanship for his stated cause of regionalism had given way to his true artistry: the rendering of timeless American stories through an affectionate and ironic eye.Dissertation Note

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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