American Gothic

One of America’s most recognisable couples will be paying a visit to London next month. And, no, it’s not the Trumps – though, come to think of it, this pair would probably have voted for Donald, given that he won Iowa on a wave of popular discontent. This Iowan pair look nothing if not disgruntled with their lot.

Our February visitors will be coming in the form of a painting. It normally hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, but will travel to England for the first time. Pretty much everyone will know it because this is the iconic American Gothic; a bald, pitchfork-wielding farmer stands beside a puritanical woman (his daughter perhaps, or his wife?) in front of their little, white-painted, wooden-slatted house. It has become one of the most familiar — and parodied — images in 20th-century American art.

Its creator, Grant Wood, travelling round his home state of Iowa, was struck by the architecture of a small clapboard homestead. Its gothic-style windows seemed to him somehow absurd. And so, using his sister and his dentist as his models, he set out to imagine “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”.

At first Iowans were furious to find themselves represented as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers”. One farmer’s wife threatened to bite off Wood’s ear. Another wanted to “bash his head in”. But Wood painted this image in 1930, the year after the Wall Street Crash, and, as the Great Depression dug in ever deeper, it came to be interpreted as an emblem of a nation’s steadfast pioneering spirit.

It is in this role that the painting will star in America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy. This exhibition (February 25-June 4) brings American Gothic together with a host of other seminal loans and offers a picture of a nation in upheaval. Economic devastation and social change, the show will suggest, gave rise to an era of vital creativity. Here is a show to put one optimistic slant upon the year of struggle that lies ahead.

What they say
The gothic window is “a vanishing point in more than one sense. Family secrets, dead bodies, incest, and murder all haunt this work, and they enter the painting here.” R Tripp Evans, biographer of Wood

“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood