Grant Wood’s Studio

by Jane C Milosch et al  (Prestel)

If imitation is – as the purveyors of hackneyed proverbs would have us believe – the sincerest form of flattery, then Grant Wood was surely the most admired painter of the 20th century. His American Gothic is the Mona Lisa of the Midwest, so iconic that it transcended its original context to become a cultural touchstone, universally recognised and parodied. It crops up everywhere from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to countless low-grade greetings cards; those who have donned the dungarees and brandished the pitchfork range from the Muppets to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

But despite its widespread spoofs, American Gothic remains a work which people do not know as well as they think. Take the couple, for example. They’re self-evidently husband and wife, aren’t they? Well, no. Grant Wood thought of them as a stern father and his spinster daughter; his models were his sister, Nan, and his dentist, some 30 years her senior. And the painting’s title refers to the Crippen-like stare of the old man, to a terrifying and sinister backwoods hickery straight out of HP Lovecraft, doesn’t it? Again, no. It refers principally to the lancet-arched window behind them, a feature of Medieval ecclesiastical architecture transposed to a clapboard house in rural Iowa. And, to a lesser extent, the phrase American Gothic describes Wood’s entire approach to art.

Grant Wood was an Iowan through and through. His home town of Cedar Rapids remains to this day a small city of mainly agricultural industries – Quaker Oats is based there – set amid endless fields of corn. Yet Wood’s artistic style, before he created his American icon, was a watered-down version of French Impressionism which had little connection with where he lived. He was known chiefly for his work in the applied arts, which was in thrall to Gustav Stickley and the Arts and Crafts movement. (It is, however, possible to see a first flickering of something specific to Iowa, as well as his characteristic wry humour, in the corncob chandeliers he designed for Cedar Rapids’ Hotel Montrose.) Wood’s local fame led to his being commissioned in 1928 to create the largest stained-glass window in the USA, a 24ft arch for the Veterans’ Memorial Building in his home town. It was an immense undertaking, and to find a company that was able to execute it, Wood had to go to Germany – not a popular move, given that the project was a war memorial.

“Everything changed when Wood went to Munich,” confirms Terence Pitts, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “While he was there, he become very interested in the paintings of the Northern Renaissance – particularly those by Hans Memling – and their hard-edged realism.” Wood referred to artists like Memling and Dürer as “Gothic” painters, and on his return abandoned his shopworn Impressionism for an updated version of their style. But this was not simply a move from one form of pastiche to another; Wood’s variety of Gothic was to be specifically American, and even more specifically Midwestern. “The poet Jay Sigmund, who was a friend of his, had told him to stop painting like a Frenchman and do something that related to Iowa,” says Pitts.

The style Wood adopted, quite abruptly, on his return from Germany became known as Regionalism. Through it, he sought to create a form of art that was pertinent to the history and culture of Iowa. Wood recognised that the roots of the Midwest lay in the (then deeply unfashionable) Victorian period, so he merged his new-found love of Northern Renaissance portraiture with the composition of 19th-century daguerreotypes. “Grant Wood was very nostalgic about the past,” says Pitts. “In his portraits, he was trying to re-create a pre-industrial age.” Wood’s subjects looked outdated even in the 1930s, from their stiff poses to their clothes – even the most poverty-stricken farmers of the Depression era no longer wore collarless shirts of the style seen in American Gothic.

For all his enthusiasm for the past, Wood was no Luddite. Indeed, his studio – a converted hayloft above the hearse garage of a Cedar Rapids funeral home – was remarkably pioneering. Serving as both his home and his workplace, the studio (recently acquired by the Cedar Rapids Museum, and now open to the public) anticipates the Manhattan loft spaces of a later generation of artists. In keeping with his Arts and Crafts background, Wood designed and made the furnishings himself, leaving tool marks to signify that they were not machine-turned. But his use of materials was far removed from the “honest” approach advocated by Stickley. The fireplace, for instance, was made from a recycled metal bushel basket, painted to appear bronze, and the so-called encaustic tiles on the studio floor were simply grooves cut into the existing floorboards. Even the plastered stone walls were nothing of the kind – Wood was an early adopter of a brand-new material called MDF, years before its use became widespread in American homes and television makeover programmes.

Then there was the denim. Wood – like the country folk in his paintings – was an avid dungaree-wearer; this, he considered, was appropriate and unpretentious apparel for a working artist. Dungarees contributed to the studio’s overall look, too: his mother wove its circular rag rug from the shredded remnants of Wood’s old denims. This was not simple recycling, this was myth-making: for Wood, dungarees were emblems of Iowa, and his use of them as a decorative material was more symbolic than practical. “He stretched out the denim and glued it to some cupboard doors as a decorative finish,” reveals Pitts. “He left the pockets showing, supposedly so that he could keep things in them. But in all the photographs I’ve seen, there’s never any sign that he really used to do this.”

First published in World of Interiors issue 278. Reproduced with permission.

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