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Miss Piggy’s American Gothique: the making of a (near) masterpiece

Published 2 March 2017

As Grant Wood’s American Gothic goes on show at the RA, the former Creative Director of the Muppets explains how he came to make a painstaking tribute to it – and why he owes Piggy an apology. We begin our story in Bermuda…

  • It all begins with the Union Jack. I am, you see, a Colonial boy. And every schoolday morning, here in Bermuda at Warwick Academy before the opening bell, we six-year-olds in our khaki shorts, neatly knotted neckties, over-sized blazers (“you’ll grow into it”) and knee socks sagging just so, assembled in the schoolyard, sang “God save the King” (yes, children, there was a king once) and saluted as hand over hand the doughty maths mistress glided the Jack up the flagpole.

    Horizontal, vertical, two diagonals, all intersecting in the centre: was ever there a better, stronger, purer graphic than that flag? I was imprinted.

    But then, it was generally acknowledged, I was a child of peculiar bent. It wasn’t long before I was doing caricatures of the masters for my fellow students to thumbtack to the undersides of their desktops and use as dartboards for their compasses. If one wasn’t interested in football or cricket, it was one way to gain at least a little respect from one’s classmates.

    Then I was sent to America to school, where I read art history and became Editor of the college humour magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. And it was there that the seeds of Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection were sown.

  • The Birth of You Know Who, after Sandro Botticelli

    The Birth of You Know Who, after Sandro Botticelli

    From ‘Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection’, by Michael K. Frith

    © Disney/Muppets

  • Now I’ll admit I was taking art history partly because it was a “gut” course, something I could slide through whilst I focused on the thing that really mattered – the magazine. But – hey! – I drew pictures, loved looking at pictures, and out where I came from in the middle of the ocean? Other than my comic book collection, not much by way of pictures to look at. So this was all pretty revelatory. And the big revelation came in a lecture by the legendary Seymour Slive, who until his death just a couple of years ago at 93 was the world’s leading authority on 17th-century Dutch art. Professor Slive’s enthusiasm was infectious: across the stage of the lecture hall he would bound, jabbing at the giant projected image behind him with a pointer twice as long as he: “And what a development THIS is!” he would cry with a great slash across the screen. “See how Hals has split the picture with this diagonal…”

    And I did see it. Great paintings suddenly became at once both more understandable… and more mysterious. I had an assignment on van Eyck at the time, and out of curiosity I dropped one of those clear plastic triangles us art guys always have lying around (a “set square”, I think you call it here) onto the image in the book from which I was cribbing. OMG! I would have said if it had been invented yet – everywhere I put the thing, something new was revealed in the painting. This bit related to that bit, this shape mirrored that shape, this empty section here perfectly balanced that chock-ablock section there. And under it all – the whole thing was held together by… the Union Jack. I could have cried.

    I soon determined that there WAS NOT A DECENT PICTURE EVER, EVER PAINTED that didn’t stand up to that simple test of its composition: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals, all intersecting in the centre, each section in intense, ecstatic conversation with the other. Every now and then I’d come across one by some artist of genius that just seemed somehow off. How could that possibly be? Apply the Jack test: failure. Then I would read the accompanying text: “Since he loved the painting so, in 1847 Lord Braynedead had it cut down to fit a splendid rococo frame that he particularly favoured…” Has the renovated Rijksmuseum displayed Rembrandt’s Night Watch in such a way that we can imagine it as it was before the composition was mutilated? That sort of correction should be the obligation of every museum that hangs a picture worth looking at.

  • Well, about 20 years later I found myself in a most peculiar place. Peculiar, at least, maybe, for anyone but me. I’d been recruited out of college into the world of publishing, where I’d become an editor, writer and illustrator, from whence, some dozen years on, I’d been recruited by Jim Henson at the Muppets as, among other things, Head of Art and Design at that still relatively nascent enterprise. BOOM! The Muppet Show took off in a way none of us could have dreamed of, and with it international stars were born, albeit ones of fabric, fur, fleece, flock, feathers and felt.

    Especially A Pig.

    Large pictorial wall calendars were just coming into vogue, and I thought it could be great fun to do such a thing with the new denizens of The Muppet Show – prime candidate: That Pig. From the moment she leapt onto the screen with the karate chop heard round the world, she simply cried out to me to be given the ultimate star treatment. Who would dare deny her? HII-YAH!

    The Miss Piggy calendars, insanely elaborate photo setups of her in preposterously glamourous settings, were enormously popular, and we were able to bring in a writer of comic luminescence, another old Lampooner, Henry Beard, to author a book called Miss Piggy’s Guide To Life. It was a sensation, spending some seven months on the New York Times bestseller list, paving the way for the project of my dreams: what became The Kermitage.

  • If you raised the pig a smidge to adjust her relationship to the house, that threw off the balance of the frog to the pitchfork

    Michael K. Frith

  • I had a couple of times taken advantage of lulls in our in-house photo studio’s schedule to stage La Pig in some tableau loosely based on art historical precedent. A Fragonard-like Pig On A Swing was magnificently framed and given pride of place over the fireplace in our grand, panelled conference room. A Mona Piggy was done… because it seemed like it just needed doing. And so when I proposed that I might continue to explore this theme? No one said me nay.

    But I didn’t want this to be just another of those calendars. I was determined that Piggy’s art collection would be something more – A REAL BOOK. The publishers of Piggy’s Guide, flushed with that success, agreed. And the brilliant Mr. Beard agreed to contribute the text.

    The aim was to take a number of iconic pieces of Western art that would either be somewhat familiar to a general audience or would be readily recognisable as the work of some well-known artist – and substitute members of our troupe for the original subjects. The pieces chosen would need to work on several levels: there should be some reason Piggy would have them in her collection; they should bring a smile to the viewer; and they should be ones that, for various reasons, had given me joy. “Parodies”? Not altogether. Tributes, really.

    So why American Gothic? Back in art history classes, American artists had been almost universally treated with something approaching disdain. Even giants like Whistler and Sargent were barely tolerated, and then only because, well, you know, they really were almost European. But Thomas Hart Benton? Georgia O’Keeffe? Grant Wood? They were not only American… they were regionalists. Please! Let’s move on to another subject. After we wash up.

  • Grant Wood, American Gothic (detail)

    Grant Wood , American Gothic (detail) , 1930 .

    Oil on beaver board. 78 x 65.3 cm. Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934, The Art Institute of Chicago. Exhibition organised by the Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Établissement public du musée d'Orsay et du musée de l'Orangerie, Paris.

  • But there was something going on there, a reason beyond the subject matter that that picture had so stuck in the global consciousness. Why? Umm… let’s just look at the title.

    “Gothic.” OK, take the argument that it’s simply a reference to the o’erweening “Carpenter Gothic” architecture of the house. “Ha, ha!” sneer the “experts”, “Those simple farm folk don’t know how silly they look standing in front of their pretentious, oversized, Gothicised window.” The same sort of snobbery we were getting back in art history, this time extended to the subjects themselves.

    Really? Much will be written around the exhibition America After the Fall, I’m sure, about how, shortly before he embarked on this picture, Wood had returned from Europe, where he was smitten by the great 15th-century Northern painters, particularly our old friend van Eyck. One can imagine him on his return searching for a way to create his own version of what he had discovered there, the exhilarating skill of execution, clarity of vision and extraordinary rigour of composition exemplified by those Gothic masters.

    Came that fateful day, driving past the Dibble house in Iowa, and he saw it. This most American of painters would use this as his departure point for a quintessentially American subject and create an American Gothic. In this beautifully constructed and exact 5:6 ratio panel, every square of the grid perfectly frames an element of the composition; each shape mirrors and anticipates every other; the key elements, head, pitchfork, head, window, head, create an almost vertiginous rotating circle around the centre point; the two triangles of the roof lines, if continued down through the two faces, precisely divide them in equal ways; the shapes of the pitchfork, the stitching on the overall’s bib, the window are all joined in an elegant, almost erotic dance… one could go on forever. And I’m sure someone will. This was Wood’s passionate tribute to his newfound heroes, those Gothic masters. And I was determined to do the same for him.

    But, you know, with a frog and a pig.

  • American Gothique, after Grant Wood, from 'Miss Piggy's Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection', co-edited by Michael K. Frith
  • Just to make matters more difficult, from the beginning I insisted that every element in every one of the pictures be real. This was a lifetime before Photoshop, and photo retouching seemed like just plain cheating. We shot on large format transparency film, every effect created in camera. Our amazing set builders, led by Bruce Morozko, built the Dibble house in our studio, Debbie Lombardi hand blocked the fabrics and made the costumes, John Barrett lit. And I… “tweaked.”

    That’s what they called it. What you don’t see is what’s going on under, behind and outside the frame of each picture, the forest of overlapping C-stands, grip stands and lighting instruments, the apple boxes on which the set pieces perched, the tangles of armature wire and the gaffer tape holding it all precariously together. Because if you tied anything down too securely and you had to move something, you’d have to take the whole thing apart and start again. And everything was constantly shifting – it was all about matters of millimetres. If you raised the pig a smidge to adjust her relationship to the house, that threw off the balance of the frog to the pitchfork. And so on, and so on. It meant endless hopping back and forth between micro-adjusting every element in the set and squinting at it (upside down!) in the back of the view camera, hoping each time not to trip over anything and send the whole house of cards into collapse. Which did happen.

    After days of this, there would come a time when even in our blessed circumstances one just had to move on. And that is why, among Piggy’s many splendid acquisitions, Gothique is but a (near) masterpiece. For – gulp! – I fear I – I! – failed the Jack test. Oh, it’s close! But when you draw those unforgiving intersecting lines across it… well, for a picture that was supposed to be a tribute to one of the most intricately constructed compositions ever? Sorry, Pig. Sorry, Wood. I let you both down. The window is… just off to the left; the pitchfork is… just off to the right. The Frog’s collar button and the Pig’s cameo do not exactly mirror each other across the centre point… I mean, I was able to make it work with the Botticelli, f‘gawds sake, substituting a short dumpy pig for his long, lissome supermodel. How could this one have ended up missing the mark so widely? It drives me nuts to this day.

  • Side by side: Grant Wood's 'American Gothic', 1930 and Michael K. Frith's 'American Gothique', 1984

    Side by side: Grant Wood's 'American Gothic', 1930 and Michael K. Frith's 'American Gothique', 1984

    Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934/The Art Institute of Chicago. © Disney/Muppets

  • The Kermitage Collection eventually did become a calendar too, another bestseller, and continued to spin off posters and postcards and puzzles and such for years. But while such ephemera fade, the book still lasts. “B. Bernard ‘Bernie’ Bernhardt Bernier Bernardi,” Henry Beard’s delightful conjuring of Piggy’s “art advisor” – a shadowy figure who seems to deal only out of airports and turnpike rest stops, an opportunist more than willing to relieve a celebrity with more money than taste of whatever he can – is as relevant a figure in the art world today as it has been for, probably, centuries.

    On the Gothique? All I can plead is that I did my best (you know – that road to hell…), and then the time ran out. Which is, one hopes, at least what one can say about one’s life. As for that? I’m still tweaking.

  • Michael K. Frith was Editor-in-Chief for Random House’s Beginner Book series, working with Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and went on to become Executive Vice President, Director of Creative Services and an Executive Producer for the Jim Henson Company, working on Muppet-related projects for over 20 years and creating characters including Fozzie Bear and the Swedish Chef. He later co-created and designed programmes including Fraggle Rock and Between the Lions. Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection was published in 1984.

    America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 25 February – 4 June 2017.