from the Introduction to Grant Wood: A Life
Sometime in the late 1930s, Grant Wood confided to his sister that he had a double. Mistaken for the artist by Wood's lifelong friends and even his Aunt Jeanette, this shadowy figure had appeared as far away as Omaha and as uncomfortably close as the painter's home in Iowa City. The story of Wood's doppelgänger appears only briefly in his sister Nan's memoirs — the reference is casual, the mystery left unsolved — yet it raises related questions about the impression Wood made on those who knew him best, and reveals, to use Nan's words, one of the many "strange by-products" of her brother's fame. Typically more amused than alarmed by his own celebrity, Wood confessed that in this instance "the matter makes me feel a little queer."
The fact that a stranger could have fooled the artist's family and friends so easily may be explained, in part, by their occasional inability to recognize Wood himself. As the painter related in his unfinished autobiography, his father sometimes failed to register Wood's presence even when the two stood in the same room. Similarly, following the artist's return from a summer in Paris in 1920, his neighbors in Cedar Rapids claimed not to recognize the man they'd known for decades. Even Wood's mother, who lived with him until her death at 77, could not identify her son when presented with a recent photograph of him in 1929.
Wood fared little better with the general public. His popular image as the Artist-in-Overalls allowed Wood to simply vanish when he appeared in his street clothes; despite ubiquitous images of the artist that had appeared in the national press, a reporter in 1938 noted that Wood "can spend two hours in Union Station in Kansas City without exciting any notice at all." Such an uncanny talent for blending into the woodwork — reflected, rather fittingly, in Wood's brief stint as a camouflage artist during the First World War — was matched by a lifelong habit of self-deprecation. In a typical interview at the height of his fame, Wood claimed: "I'm the plainest kind of fellow you can find. There isn't a single thing I've done, or experienced, that's been even the least bit exciting."
Countless profiles of the artist in the 1930s celebrated his very ordinariness as the source of his work's appeal. For these critics, Wood's life and imagery appeared to reflect the values of a similarly unassuming, and now vanished, rural American Golden Age — a period untainted by the complexities and strident individualism of the modern world. In 1936, the Daily Iowan went so far as to print a scientific recording of Wood's brainwaves; as uniform and predictable as a sine curve, the painter's "large, regular, and smooth" brainwaves - whose pattern, indeed, bore a striking resemblance to the rolling hills of his landscapes - were favorably compared with the "irregular and more complicated" brainwaves of a psychology professor at the University of Iowa. Wood's physiological makeup, it seems, represented as much of an historical throwback as his work did.
Critics in our own time have often perpetuated this two-dimensional image of the artist, yet even the most cursory investigation of Wood's life calls into question its supposedly uncomplicated character. Not only do we encounter a self-proclaimed "farmer-painter" who never farmed, but a young man whose earliest vocations lay in the fields of jewelry design, interior decoration, and theatrical production. Faced with Wood's public reputation as a naïve, parochial artist, moreover, we must account for his early training in a prestigious French atélier, his ambitious one-man début in a Paris gallery, and his careful study of Old Master paintings. Finally, we must reconcile this apparent paragon of such "heartland" values as civic virtue and traditional Christian morality, with a man who often bristled at small town life, belonged to no church, and spent most of his life masking — not always successfully — his homosexuality.
Wanda Corn claims that "it has been Grant Wood's fate to be widely known but narrowly understood," yet I would argue that he is every bit as narrowly known as he is understood. Conservative champions applaud the painter as a folksy chronicler of a by-gone America, or a gentle satirist of small-town foibles, whereas his detractors claim (for the very same reasons) that he promoted a cloying, phony, or even sinister form of nationalism. Whether sympathetic or hostile to the artist's work, both camps miss the man who stands before them — and certainly, they fail to account for the arresting elements that haunt his imagery.
Wood's subtly distorted figures and tumescent landscapes, his esoteric and sometimes intentionally incorrect historical quotations, as well as his unsettling juxtapositions of scale, place, and time all belie his work's presumed legibility and communal spirit. Indeed, if we stop to consider some of the paintings for which he is best known — works like American Gothic (1930), Victorian Survival (1931), or Parson Weems' Fable (1939) — it is clear that his most successful images are also among his most unnerving and impenetrable. First-time viewers of these paintings often find it difficult to reconcile their immediate emotional response with the scenes before their eyes, and with good reason. Tickling our subconscious in unexpected ways, these images appear to provide a rather startling view of the artist's, as well.
American Gothic perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. Although the painting is often interpreted as an unmediated reflection of rural American values, most viewers feel neither warm nostalgia nor smug contempt when they first encounter the picture. Rather, they experience an indefinable dread. For a whole host of reasons, American Gothic is a profoundly creepy image — "or it can be," as Steven Biel suggested in his 2005 study of the painting, "if you look at it carefully."
The work's extraordinary fame, of course, has made it difficult for anyone to properly see it. Its composition has become an almost instantly recognizable sight gag — after the Mona Lisa, it may be the most parodied painting in the history of art — yet it is the rare viewer who can name its maker, determine its subject, or even identify the intended relationship between its figures (most audiences assume that the pair represents a married couple, but the artist himself insisted they were a father and daughter — a factor that, in and of itself, considerably complicates the work). Not only do American Gothic's innumerable recastings obscure the artist along with his intentions, but they also banish the original work's palpable sense of confrontation. It is easier by far — a great relief, in fact — to see the likes of Paris Hilton, Paul Newman, or the latest lampooned politician holding the farmer's menacing pitchfork.
To understand the discomfort that American Gothic inspires, we must strip away its parodies and reproductions and consider, instead, the unique circumstances of its creation and creator. "Every masterpiece came into the world with a measure of ugliness," Gertrude Stein once wrote; "[Raphael's] Sistine Madonna is all over the world, on grocer's calendars and on Christmas cards; everyone thinks it's an easy picture. It's our business as critics to stand in front of it and recover its ugliness." The "ugliness" Stein perceives in the Sistine Madonna, and that we may find in abundance in Wood's imagery, has less to do with notions of beauty or design than it does with the works' potential to move viewers in unexpected ways. By recovering this dimension of Wood's art we not only better understand the man himself, but we also rescue his remarkable works from the charge (or the accolade) that they are in some way "easy" pictures.
Rather than presenting Wood and his work as paradigms of Depression-era America, as so many have done, this study seeks to illuminate the profound and fertile disconnection between the artist and his period. More particularly, I am interested in the ambivalence Wood felt toward his native environment, and in the ways his allegiance to Regionalism — the movement with which he is most often associated — served important private and immediate ends, rather than political or cultural ones. As if by pentimento, I hope to reveal the indelible traces of desire, memory, and dread that lie just beneath the surfaces of his work — elements that have little, if anything, to do with national character.
Even more so than any of his critics, it is Wood himself who has hampered our full understanding of his art and its motivations. Throughout his life he attempted to present himself and his work as the reflection of "authentic" American manhood — conceived as heterosexual, hardworking, wholesome, and patriotic — precisely because he believed he had fallen short of this model himself. Not only did Wood fail to achieve his father's rather daunting model of masculinity, but his short-lived "bohemian" period in the 1920s also inspired chronic suspicions concerning his character, associations, and private life. The defensive, all-American image Wood adopted in response to this scrutiny has provided as much relief to his promoters as it has fodder for his critics, yet it has also led to their rather meager harvest from his work. If we are to make better sense of his imagery, then it is our business to recapture the compelling "ugliness" in his work — to borrow Stein's phrase — and to restore it, as well, to the man himself.