'American Gothic,' Pitchfork Perfect

Viewing American Gothic
At the Renwick Gallery, Diana Greenwold and graphic designer Kelly Guerrero look for the best spot to place a label for Grant Wood's "American Gothic." (Katherine Frey for The Washington Post)
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 10, 2006

Is "American Gothic" America's best-known painting? Certainly it's one of them. Grant Wood's dual portrait -- with its churchy evocations, its stiffness and its pitchfork -- pierced us long ago, and got stuck into our minds. Now, finally, it's here.

"American Gothic," which hasn't been in Washington in 40 years, goes on view today at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. By all means, take it in -- although, of course, you have already.

It should have gone all fuzzy -- it's been parodied so often, and parsed so many ways -- but the 1930 canvas at the Renwick is as sharp as ever. Its details are finer than its travesties suggest, its image more absorbing. It's also smaller than one might have imagined, at only two feet wide. Wood painted it in his home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, showed it only once and then sold it, with relief, to the Art Institute of Chicago -- for $300.

The picture with a pitchfork is an American unforgettable. Few paintings, very few, have its recognizability. Maybe Whistler's mother. Maybe Warhol's soup can. Maybe Rockwell's Thanksgiving turkey. They're national emblems, all of them, visual manifestations of the American dream.

Whistler's figure, stiff and dark, looks half-enthroned and half-embalmed; what she evokes is Mom. Family and food are the twin themes of the Rockwell. And with his Campbell's can, fluorescent-lit, Warhol nails shopping.

"American Gothic," too, hits the psychic bull's-eye. Wood's sly painting gives us the bedrock Christian values, the sober rural rectitude and the gnawing fear of sex that have made this country great.

The dangers of the dirty deed might not be depicted, but they're present nonetheless. The sinful is suggested by the serpent made of hair that slithers up the woman's neck to whisper in her ear, by the lightning rod atop the house and, of course, by the Devil's pitchfork. Wood's painting has a wink in it. No wonder it has been so frequently cartooned.

"The couple in front of the house have become preppies, yuppies, hippies," writes critic Robert Hughes, "Weathermen, pot growers, Ku Kluxers, jocks, operagoers, the Johnsons, the Reagans, the Carters, the Fords, the Nixons, the Clintons, and George Wallace with an elderly black lady."

But cartoons tend toward the slapdash, and Wood's calculated image is not at all haphazard. Nothing's out of place. The bright tines of the fork have been echoed one, two, three, by, at the left, the distant steeple, the window's pointed arch and the sharp roof at the right. The pitchfork rhymes as well with the seams of the man's overalls. When Wood painted "American Gothic," he fit its symmetries together as if he were making a watch.

Often, for self-portraits, the painter posed in overalls. But don't fall for the costume. Grant Wood (1891-1942) was no hick. He'd been four times to Europe. He taught in universities. He'd studied art in Paris, Germany and Italy, and it's clear he'd learned a lot. He was an exceptionally skillful painter, although not for long. Most of his best pictures -- a dozen are included in "Grant Wood's Studio: Birthplace of 'American Gothic,' " the Renwick's exhibition -- were painted in the five years after 1930. He had other things to do.

He was, this show reminds us, a carpenter, a carver, a skilled interior decorator. He could make a metal lampshade, or devise a chandelier, or embellish a posh room with faux rococo decorations. He could design a woman's necklace or a stained-glass window. He hammered teapots out of copper. Examples are on view.

They're here for a reason. And two works of art are key to Jane C. Milosch's exhibition. One is Wood's strict picture; the other is the vaguely medieval studio in which he made that painting -- a charming, hand-built place acquired by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 2002. They have a lot in common. The painting and the studio demonstrate the principles -- the insistence on the local, the display of traditional craftsmanship -- of the decorative movement known as American Arts and Crafts.

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