The reality behind American Gothic

Published 16 February 2017

As ‘America after the Fall’ brings some of the country’s most iconic works to Europe for the first time, Sarah Churchwell considers the cultural and political backdrop to Depression Era art.

  • From the Spring 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    A farmer stands ramrod straight, holding a three-pronged pitchfork and wearing bib overalls under a crumpled black jacket grown rusty with age. The pale blue Iowa sky is slightly less flinty than his expression. On his right stands a woman whom many take for his wife, but was intended by the artist to be his daughter. Her mouth seems similarly uncompromising, as is the blonde hair scraped back from her face. A straggling lock of hair, liberated by work, softens her expression; a closer look at her eyes reveals the worry.

    Together, the couple below appear singularly grim. Behind them is a cream farmhouse with a window-blind on the upper floor flocked by the same pattern covering the woman’s simple brown dress. The window frame is Gothic, and many observers assume that it alone gives the painting its name. But the couple’s old-fashioned dress, demeanour and agrarian setting would also have been deemed figuratively “gothic” when the picture was painted, much as any old-fashioned style might be called “medieval”. To be an American yeoman farmer while the rest of the nation extolled the modern was to belong to the dark ages.

    American Gothic, painted in 1930 by Iowa native Grant Wood, is probably the most famous American painting in the world. If any artworks merit that overworked adjective “iconic”, this is one of them. The contrast between modernity and archaism registers even in the picture’s Flemish style, which was also once called “Gothic”. Wood employed the techniques of the so-called “primitives of Flanders” – whose 15th and early 16th-century works were later referred to as “Gothic painting” – to suggest his couple’s anachronistic qualities. Among other historical ironies that Wood’s juxtaposition creates, it captures the moment when Iowa, once a radical state dedicated to the fight against slavery (an all-but forgotten history that is the subject of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prizewinning novel Gilead), had become a byword for white rural conservatism.

    The painting was immediately exhibited, and then purchased, by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has hung ever since. Almost a century later, thanks to the exhibition America after the Fall it has made its first voyage to Europe, arriving in Paris at the Musée de l’Orangerie last autumn before making its way to the RA this spring. There is something ironically fitting about this, the rural Iowa couple clinging to outmoded values who finally leave the American heartland, at the age of nearly 90, to discover the world, rather as if American Gothic just got a passport.

  • Grant Wood, American Gothic

    Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930.

    Friends of American Art Collection 1930.934/The Art Institute of Chicago.

  • For me, seeing this painting come to Europe for the first time is a decidedly uncanny experience, as it is one of the first famous pictures I remember seeing, and the one I most associate with home. I grew up in Chicago, and spent much of my adolescence wandering the grand corridors of the Art Institute, where I always took a swing by to look at American Gothic, enjoying the frisson of seeing in “real life” a picture so familiar from its endless reproductions and iterations. It’s such a stock image that I couldn’t possibly say when I first encountered it, but I vividly remember the excitement of seeing the original, when I was about ten. Many years later, I would read Walter Benjamin’s influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which argues that reproducing art makes it democratically accessible, thus decreasing the mystical sense of “aura” surrounding an artwork. That said, it is also true that reproduction can increase the sense of aura around an original: the more an image is reproduced, the more exclusive its original seems. There is nothing so original as that which has been endlessly copied.

    America after the Fall consists of 45 American artworks from between 1929, when Wall Street crashed, and 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War. This is the art of the Great Depression, and it is depressing indeed to note how relevant its themes have become. It was the most severe economic downturn of any Western country in modern history; in 1933, the worst year of the Depression, US unemployment hit 25 per cent and nearly half the nation’s banks had failed. International trade declined during the period by half, while farmers were especially hard hit, as crop prices in America fell by as much as 60 per cent. These economic conditions were exacerbated by a devastating drought and winds that hit the Great Plains in waves during the 1930s, creating the “Dust Bowl” that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of farmers. Meanwhile, as the show’s excellent exhibition catalogue notes, the US population doubled between 1890 and 1930, largely because of immigration: by the 1929 Crash, one in every ten Americans was an immigrant or born to immigrants. During a time of intense social anxiety and unrest, a sense emerged that art might be reparative, rather than consolatory, that it could take part in social protest, but also contribute to a democratic celebration of communities and bridge-building.

    Some of the most familiar names, and pictures, of the period are represented in the exhibition: several major works by Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as a very early Jackson Pollock and a Georgia O’Keeffe (Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, 1931).

    Late in life, O’Keeffe wrote: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” This admonition is worth considering more closely. O’Keeffe does not insist only that what she has done should be of interest, but rather, what she has done with where she has been. Context and environment are part of interpretation – O’Keeffe didn’t want her work to be dislocated from its origins. “Where I have been” may mean the literal physical settings from which O’Keeffe and some of her contemporaries drew inspiration, in her case especially the majestic landscapes of the American southwest; but it may also figuratively denote the emotional, psychic or personal journeys that are also a matter of where artists, or their societies, have been. The question, as O’Keeffe notes, is what we have done with where we have been.

  • A widespread sense that the national iconography needed to be reclaimed and reimagined took hold of artists and thinkers across the country

    Sarah Churchwell

  • This is an exhibition about what American artists did with where they had been: it is about context – historical, cultural, geographical, political – and it brings that context to life with great elegance and economy. It is an exhibition in active dialogue with modern American history.

    In his 1918 essay On Creating a Usable Past, the American critic Van Wyck Brooks argued that America should view its past not from the perspective “of the successful fact but of the creative impulse”. For Brooks and his colleagues in the Seven Arts movement, this was an American project, a nation’s encounter with its spiritual heritage. Lewis Mumford later wrote that artists and writers in the 1920s were the “scouts and prospectors in a new enterprise, the bringing to the surface of America’s buried cultural past.”

    By 1930, this influential lesson had been absorbed by painters like Grant Wood, whose Daughters of Revolution (1932, above) is a commentary on the historical irony of reactionary genealogical societies creating aristocracies out of revolution. Three prim, old, white women stand in old-fashioned dress, their expressions exuding self-satisfaction and superiority. They are positioned in front of a representation of Emanuel Leutze’s famous historical painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851); the revolutionaries’ radicalism and daring is counterpointed, pointedly, against the women’s conservative complacency, but Wood is also implicitly attacking the hypocrisies embedded in American mythologies. One of the women is holding an heirloom tea cup, drinking tea instead of dumping it in Boston Harbour, while all of the women would have despised the German-born immigrant Leutze, despite revering his painting. Wood slyly implies the Anglo-Saxon racial superiority being celebrated: “I don’t like to have anyone try to set up an aristocracy of birth in a Republic,” he declared, calling the women three “tory gals”. Similarly, American Gothic was an ironic commentary on the state of the Jeffersonian agrarian idyll during the onset of the Great Depression, a moment when many American artists and critics were declaring, flatly, that the American experiment had failed.

    It was in 1931 that the phrase “American Dream” was first coined as a way to describe the American experiment, its hope that the nation might create a land of opportunity and promise for all, in a book called The Epic of America. Its author, James Truslow Adams, like so many Americans, was seeking to explain the failures of the nation, how it could have been brought so low. He argued that the country had lost sight of its values by merely chasing material prosperity, whereas the American Dream was properly a dream of a higher purpose, a spiritual vision of a nation in which humanity could better itself. The phrase instantly caught America’s imagination, appearing throughout the decade in debates and discussions about how the country could right its course. That sense of dreams and nightmares, of surrealism and the uncanny, of history recurring in a mythopoeic landscape, would recur throughout the art of the period as well. A widespread sense that the national iconography needed to be reclaimed and reimagined took hold of artists and thinkers across the country, as people began to question what the American Dream might mean in reality. They did not ask, as we have done during our own downturn, why the American Dream had failed; they thought they had failed, and wondered if the nation might be saved by an American Dream of a higher purpose than merely creating material prosperity.

    Confronted with the stark failure of unregulated capitalism, America began in the 1930s seriously to consider socialism and communism for the only time in its history. American artists in particular were attracted to the promises of an entirely new social and political system, given the manifest failures of the old ones. The so-called Popular Front and the WPA – the Works Progress Administration – both sought to put artists to work creating explicitly political art, even propaganda. The government encouraged artists to discover, or create, an “American Scene” that addressed native arts and culture. They were seeking great statements of American public life, history and identity that would uplift the people and help revitalise and regenerate American society; the Public Works of Art Project particularly emphasised uplifting treatments of local places and the common people.

  • That sense of dreams and nightmares, of surrealism and the uncanny, of history recurring in a mythopoeic landscape, would recur.

    Sarah Churchwell

  • The immense American murals of the 1930s, like those of Thomas Hart Benton, with their markedly Soviet-agitprop style, still grace some of America’s most important public buildings, including several state capitals and a great many post offices. Benton, one of the best-known public muralists, set the standard for WPA projects with America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, which was commissioned in 1930 and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The scale of such art reflected a prevailing sense that monuments were required that might create a national, public or collective sense of identity.

    An aesthetic debate developed between the advocates of realism as specifically and rootedly American, and abstraction as a universal language that might transcend nationalism: the mimetic social realism of the WPA murals turned toward an allegorical vision of history. Allegory was also put to the work of political and social protest by painters such as Alexandre Hogue. In Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936, above), Hogue painted an allegory of the terrible droughts of the mid-1930s in which farmland is depicted in the form of a nude woman’s body exposed by erosion.

    In Aspiration (1936, below), Aaron Douglas encapsulates the progress of African Americans rising up from slavery by depicting dark figures in chains at the bottom of the image, with large silhouetted figures rising up from them holding symbols of knowledge and labour, bathed in violet light, pointing towards a futuristic city on a hill. Joe Jones likened his painting American Justice (1933) to a Renaissance crucifixion scene: a young black woman, her white dress torn from her bare breasts, lies in the foreground, a rope hanging ominously behind her, while white costumed members of the Ku Klux Klan burn a small house in the background.

    The Harlem Renaissance, with its celebration of African American music, art, literature and history, was in full force, as paintings such as William H. Johnson’s vibrantly coloured Street Life, Harlem (1939) and Arthur Dove’s Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) (1938, below) suggest, while the latter also reflects the rising force of abstraction, its irregular shapes in varying reds and yellows against a deep black background evoking “red hot” jazz in a darkened space. Charles Green Shaw’s Wrigley’s (1937, below) prefigures Pop Art, fusing Abstract Expressionism and advertising iconography, as if a pack of gum had zoomed into an early Rothko.

  • Less playfully and more mimetically, Edward Hopper was painting scenes of urban desolation, capturing the disappointment and deflated hopes of ordinary Americans during the Depression. Hopper’s vision of urban realism is not one of shiny new skyscrapers of geometric modernist abstraction, its dreams of Futurist utopias, but older, wearied, worn-out looking individuals and isolated buildings. His places are sparsely populated, full of voids and dark spaces, as if people are leaving a city about to be blighted. Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, which also hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago, was painted in 1942, just beyond the dates of this exhibition. But two of Hopper’s paintings are represented at the RA show, including Gas (1940), with its red fuel-pumps standing alone in the country landscape as if inspired by a line from The Great Gatsby: “Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light.” Hopper’s shiny streamlined gas-pumps stand in stark contrast to the dark, undulating trees and hills behind them, the isolated attendant alone in a vast landscape.

    The second Hopper painting included in the show is the marvellous New York Movie (1939, below), which are placed in tacit discussion with two cityscapes by Reginald Marsh, whose highly populated canvases conjure the bustle and noise of urban existence. By no coincidence, both painters were interested in the movies as a symbol of modern life.

    Hopper’s New York Movie emphasises the loneliness and longing of movie-goers. In a half-empty movie theatre a fraction of the silver screen can be glimpsed in the upper left corner, while off to the right, in the golden glow of lamplight, an usherette stands alone, lost in thought. As the catalogue notes, the screen shows “snowy mountain tops” perhaps intended to evoke the hit film Lost Horizon (1937), a story of paradise found and lost. In his scene outside a cinema, Twenty Cent Movie (1936), Marsh similarly suggests the role that movies played in shaping ordinary Americans’ aspirations and dreams, while ironically underscoring the contrast between their lives and the fairy-tale images of Hollywood. While the gaudy background colours of the advertisements and movie posters promise the “joys of the flesh”, the movie-goers self-consciously pose, imitating their favourite stars, but do not interact.

  • Edward Hopper , New York Movie

    Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939.

    Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 1941/ © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence..

  • Hollywood offered escapism into fantasies of all varieties, as the canvases of Hopper and Marsh suggest, including fantasies of history. The curators at L’Orangerie decided to close their version of the exhibition with a montage of Depression Era film, which worked strikingly well in dialogue with the show. Perhaps no more notoriously nostalgic movie has ever been made than that of Gone with the Wind in 1939, a few scenes from which were included in the Paris show. But the producers of Gone with the Wind were also creating a “usable past”, one that spoke to audiences in 1939. As the iconic and climactic scene of Scarlett O’Hara vowing that she’ll never be hungry again suggests, the movie resonated with Depression Era audiences because of what it said about their experiences: it is about fighting for survival. The story certainly offered consoling lies about the antebellum South, but it also told current truths about hunger and endurance in the 1930s.

    The cinema montage in the show also included the iconic Art Deco Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Fred Astaire in discomfiting minstrelsy black-face, tap-dancing in Swing Time (1936); a homage to modernist technology as Carole Lombard excitedly takes her first plane trip in the earliest Technicolor movie, the hilariously cynical Nothing Sacred (1937) (also an edgy clip for the curators to choose, given that Lombard would tragically die in a plane crash while selling war bonds in 1942); and James Stewart demanding that the American government live up to its democratic values in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a scene clearly chosen for its tacit commentary on the state of American politics now. Hollywood was central to the story of American life the exhibition is telling, and visitors may well want to explore some of these films from the era as well.

    In 1934, F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tender is the Night. The novel begins just before the Wall Street Crash, with a young movie star Rosemary Hoyt, symbolising American innocence, who still has her very American “bouncing, breathless and exigent idealism”. By the end of the novel, she, like her country, has lost her idealism, but not her stardom. The allure of American dreams remains powerful, even when they become more mature, darker and more cynical. The uses of history, art, allegory and mythmaking in nation-building are clear, but they’re also useful when rebuilding a nation. When America hit rock bottom, its artists helped it reimagine itself. After the fall, there are lessons to be learned about how to get back up.


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