Monday, January 09, 2012
It's an American icon. Like the gospel, it's as simple as a cupcake, yet as complex as the face of the moon. Nothing--not even politicians at the State Fair or endlessly unfurled rows of corn--says "Iowa" more definitively than Grant Wood's American Gothic, and that's why, I guess, I thought we had to have one once we moved here, years and years ago. What Hawkeye home would really be complete without one?
It's prompted a thousand parodies. Google it sometime, and you'll find dozens and dozens of spoofs, made hilarious by the instant recognition the image creates.
The thing is, he didn't mean it as a joke--or did he? Sometime in the 1930s, Grant Wood got himself enthralled by Flemish portrait artists and figured he could try their peculiar style himself. So he got his dentist and his sister to stand in front of a house whose arching upstairs bedroom window offered its own kind of gothic shape, and, viola!--he had a telling portrait.
American Gothic says different things to different people, however. Some Iowans were mortified that he so deviously rendered up Iowa's barnyard puritans. They may be right--it's hard for Iowans not to feel a little mocked by the painting, really--and rather brutally exposed. If you're progressive especially, you sort of want to yell out that we're not all like that! What Grant Wood has captured here is the very soul of 21st century Iowa Christian conservatives. If you're one of them, I'm not sure what you think because I'm not and because they aren't among the champions of irony.
There are those who think it is satire, Mr. Wood, who wore bibs himself, making fun of his own people. And there are those who think it isn't, Mr. Wood, who wore bibs himself, deeply appreciative of the arduous work ethic, the rugged simplicity of the people of the tall corn. It's a mark of the painting's excellence that we can read just about anything we want into the portrait, and--for better or for worse--I love it. It's on our wall, but upstairs.
Years ago, when Grandpa took down an old shed, we saved a couple of weathered boards and had American Gothic framed in sweetly weathered Van Gelder barn wood. We've still not started sifting seriously through Schaap "stuff" for the sale of our house, but I was thinking that wouldn't toss American Gothic, nor would I sell it. It's us, after all. That's what I always thought.
But last week our darling grandson, just two years old and only now beginning to make sense when he jabbers, took one look at Grant Wood's masterpiece hanging on an upstairs wall, pointed one perfectly sinless little fat finger, and said, "Papa and Mima." Meaning us.
He thought it was us.
I'll admit it--I gulped a little. After all, I don't look like the old dentist--I'm much heavier. And Barbara hasn't worn a kitchen smock like that for as long as I've known her. We're really not them. I mean he was factually wrong.
But then I got to thinking. I suppose that finally the little guy is right, isn't he? We are them, even though I don't own a pitchfork and my wife only recently started to wear her hair pinned back like that.
It's amazing. I've decided that ahead of our smart little grandson lies, undoubtedly, a distinguished career as a famous art critic. He understands the ambiguity of Grant Wood--at just two years old, he gets American Gothic. He's brilliant.
Besides, we don't have a gothic window either. And I don't have a collarless shirt like that, and Barbara has nothing even close to that black dress--no medallion or whatever it is. And good night, we're not that dour. Look at those faces.
I mean, we're not really them. No way. That little grandson of ours, he really meant that appraisal iconically. That's what he really meant. That's what he meant to say.
Anyway, when it comes time for us move out, I'm thinking of getting rid of it actually.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:26 AM