Wednesday, February 05, 2014
Grant Wood, best known for his iconic American Gothic, lived and worked most of his life in and around my home town: Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His legacy in the area—in addition to an exhaustive collection of his work in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art permanent collection—includes an annual art festival, a grade school (my alma mater!) and even the entire region’s public education agency—all in his name.
Of course, no Cedar Rapids student’s education is complete without thorough coverage of Wood’s stylized, iconoclastic, humorous and sometimes political oeuvre. And this Cedar Rapids student came away with a lifelong love of his work.
Grant Wood was a pioneer in a loosely coordinated artistic movement called Regionalism, which eschewed modernist, abstract trends like Impressionism and Cubism in favor of stylistic, romanticized views of everyday rural life in the 1930s. The Regionalists were less concerned with promoting the leftist politics of 1930s Social Realists than with renouncing the hegemony of popular European culture and celebrating the honest work ethic and modest demeanor of the Midwest.
In 1928, Wood received a commission to create a giant stained-glass window for the American Legion in Cedar Rapids. In preparation, he traveled to Munich to study ancient stained-glass techniques under Germany’s famed master craftsmen. The window he created, featuring a 16-foot Lady of Peace standing over six life-size soldiers representing the Revolutionary War through World War I, was a masterpiece of technique, form and color.
Fun fact: The model for the central figure was his sister, Nan Wood Graham, who was also the model for the female figure in American Gothic.
Despite the window's unmistakable American themes, it drew fire from misguided patriots who criticized Wood for studying with the Germans—the enemy!—so soon after the first World War. One of the most vocal groups was the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution.
Wood’s elegant response: Daughters of Revolution, a satirical painting showing three dour spinstresses standing self-righteously—one, pinky extended in haughty indignation, holding a teacup in my grandmother’s china pattern—in front of Emmanuel Leutz’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Wood’s point, lost completely on the knee-jerk reactionaries the painting so elegantly mocked, lies in the fact that Washington Crossing the Delaware—that beloved icon of American patriotism—was painted by a German.
I loved this painting before I even knew its story. The smug women drew me in because their spiritual progeny hung just a few branches over on my family tree. The Blue Willow teacup fascinated me because its cousins served as my grandmother’s everyday dishes. (Have you ever eaten green Jell-O off a blue plate? NOT so appetizing.) And that shape—that relentless horizontalness—made the painting such a challenge to display in any setting.
But I've accepted that challenge. Gladly. And my very own Daughters of Revolution print today occupies the place of honor over my collection of Norwegian family artifacts in my kitchen.