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One of the most famous paintings of the 20th century is Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Since its unveiling in 1930, it has achieved an international status—both admonished and celebrated, dismissed and parodied.
The work is a dour portrait of a farmer and his daughter standing in front of a neo-gothic farmhouse in Iowa. The daughter’s sullen look is echoed in her father’s direct but blank gaze, pitchfork in hand looking not the least bit amused.
In the midst of the Great Depression, the painting quickly became an image for all things American—hardworking, simple farming folks—and has often maintained this status over the years by conservatives seeking to define American character.
Another intriguing quality of Wood’s painting is how, through its popularity and parodies, the portrait of father and daughter has been transformed into a tableau of matrimonial wholesomeness and heterosexual American-ness.
Yet, as R. Tripp Evans shows in Grant Wood: A Life, Wood was a reluctant artist for the values of mid-western heterosexual values. The life of Grant Wood has often been eclipsed by his paintings, leaving him a constant enigma in the history American art.
Evans unravels the strings of myth and invention that wrapped around Wood during his life and particularly after his death. As Evans shows, conservative critics of the 1930s, his sister Nan (who was the model for the daughter in “American Gothic”), and Wood himself fostered an image of the artist as a simple, farmer’s son, made up of one part folksy innocence, one part unpretentious farmer, and two parts masculine, heterosexual artist.
It’s this latter quality that Evan’s explores throughout the biography, considering the ways that Wood’s homosexuality was buried behind the personae of a man who painted in overalls and rejected any influence of European aesthetics (despite having lived and studied in 1920s Paris). As one critic wrote in an attack on European modernism, “Wood is calling us back to . . . simplicity, and even hardness.”
Evans does excellent work at interpreting the often unnoticed or ignored homoeroticism that permeates Wood’s paintings. He is a deft interpreter of Wood’s images that shows us new ways of looking at the work. At times, he strays too far into Freudian inspired readings of both the paintings and the life that distract more than they illuminate.
However, Evans is best as cultural historian, when he situates Wood in the battles over art and the artist in the 1930s that were often pitched as battles over national character, with gender and sexuality at the heart of these crusades. For decades, Wood’s paintings have been dismissed or celebrated as icons of conservative ideals, chiefly because of Wood’s involvement with the regionalist movement in the 1930s. As a backlash to a “sissified” art of European modernism, the regionalist movement, including Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and the art critic Thomas Craven, emerged as a nationalistic, albeit short lived, faux aesthetic.
Regionalism exposed a deep contempt for European art, for the gender bender decadence of the Left Bank, and called instead on a nationalist aesthetic that explicitly rejected the “hymns to homosexuality” as Craven called them, that “emasculate[d] American art.” Critics of regionalism condemned its conservatism in both art and social ideals. But a reluctant Wood found a national stage in this movement that valorized red-blooded, patriotic hardness against “hothouse aesthetes” and fostered in Wood an invention of himself that mediated private desires and public persona.
Indeed, as Evans argues, not only for Wood but also for Benson and Craven as well, regionalism “provided a convenient closet for artists or critics.”
What you won’t find in this biography that focuses on Wood’s homosexual desires is any actual homosexual activity. Any evidence of Wood’s desires for men remains in the suggestive, in the interpretation of his relationships, in the homoerotic imagery of his paintings. Though critics have questioned his sexuality from the beginning of his career, there are no letters or journals to confirm or deny Wood’s homosexuality.
Instead, Evans presents an artist whose homosexuality was an open secret that he feared and embraced throughout his life among his fellow artists, his colleagues at the University Iowa where he taught painting, and even his short-lived marriage in the 1940s to a widow 13 years his senior. But as so often happens with open secrets, their elusiveness becomes their most powerful reality.
In the end, Evans has given us a portrait of an artist that, like his famous painting, has been reinvented and misunderstood for decades.
by R. Tripp Evans
Hardcover, 432 pages