Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Favorite Artists 3 - Grant Wood

A new retrospective of the works of Grant Wood is set to open next month at  The Whitney in New York City. While he isn't at the top of my personal pantheon, Grant Wood is definitely a favorite of mine. Partly he's a favorite because of my connection with him in Iowa, but I also genuinely enjoy his work, and not simply American Gothic, but many of his other lesser-known pieces. Wood was original in many senses, not least of which was his determined adherence to realism in a time when Modernism of various shapes was all the rage. Regionalism of course became the "ism" of Grant Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton and others, and Wood devoted himself to the concept during the 1930s. (Notably, Edward Hopper is sometimes mistakenly included as a Regionalist.)

Mr. Wood was born on a farm near Anamosa, a small town in northeast Iowa, and moved to Cedar Rapids as a child. He studied formally at the Minneapolis School of Design, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and subsequently spent substantial time in Europe during the 1920s, where he studied at the Academie Julien. Although he was influenced by the Impressionist and Post-impressionist movements, it was actually the Flemish painters--particularly van Eyck--that made the biggest impact. If you look at American Gothic, or others in his oeuvre, the influence of the smooth flawless surfaces of the Flemish painters is clear.

Grant Wood, "Self Portrait," 1932
I enjoy Mr. Wood's self portraits, particularly one painted in 1932 a few years after he had returned to Cedar Rapids. He looks very watchful to me, almost apprehensive, and very cautious. As a closeted gay man in those years and that place, his expression makes a good deal of sense. Although he was briefly married, his homosexuality was an open secret in his home town, so much so that he was shunned by many.

As it happens a friend of mine (who like Mr. Wood, is from near Anamosa) seems to confirm his being a pariah during his lifetime. According to her, only three people were present at his graveside funeral service: the mortician, the minister, and the gravedigger. She believes the lack of mourners was clearly because of his homosexuality. Nan, his sister and heir (and the woman in American Gothic) was not there, nor was anyone else from the family, from Cedar Rapids, nor from the University of Iowa where he taught, nor from Anamosa. (The gravedigger was my friend's grandfather.)

Grant Wood, "Returned from Bohemia," 1935

Given his closeted position, his "Returned from Bohemia," which includes a self portrait, painted in 1935 after he had joined the faculty of the University of Iowa has particular power. In small towns everywhere, it often feels as if everyone is looking over your shoulder, judging and condemning or admiring. For someone with a secret life and accustomed to a freer society, the Midwest must have been hellish at times.

Grant Wood "Family Doctor," lithograph, 1940
Besides his paintings, Mr. Wood was actively interested in a number of other media including printmaking. One of my personal favorites is "Family Doctor," a commissioned lithograph from about 1940. The black and white image shows a doctor's hands framing a thermometer. Other tools of the trade are a big pocket watch and an old-fashioned stethoscope. There is something reassuring abut the doctor's relatively formal attire (for today anyway) and the close concentration implied by the image.

If you want to explore Grant Wood's works in more depth, the Figge Museum in Davenport is a good place to begin.

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