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Grant Wood, remembered

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | APRIL 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Grant Wood spent most of his life painting explorations into the lives of others — rural Midwesterners in particular.

This weekend, a group of scholars will turn this dynamic around, using Wood’s paintings to explore his life, in a symposium titled “Grant Wood’s World” at 9 a.m. Saturday. The symposium will be held in 140 Schaeffer Hall, and admission is free.

Wood, a native Iowan who taught painting at the University of Iowa in the 1930s and early ’40s, is regarded as one of the most important Midwestern regionalist painters. His painting American Gothic is considered one of, if not the, most famous paintings in American history.

“American Gothic is probably the best American painting,” said Henry Adams, a speaker at the symposium and an art professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “It’s only rival would be the Gilbert Stuart [painting of George Washington] on the dollar bill.”

The painter was known for being an impressionist, along the lines of Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne, before he traveled to Europe in the 1920s, where he was inspired by the resurgence in popularity of the 15th-century Northern Renaissance work of German and Dutch painters who focused strongly on realism. Wood adopted a similar aesthetic, and began painting such works as American Gothic and Dinner for Threshers with a more realist touch.

“I think impressionism became a dead-end for him,” said R. Trip Evans, a professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and another featured speaker. “It had become such a widely accepted style by the ’20s that there was no real way to distinguish himself from his peers.”

Though Wood achieved a lot of success in critical circles, his work is also sometimes regarded as simple and lacking in substance. To Adams and Evans, this is in part because not much research had been done until recently that looked into the life of the painter — in particular his alcoholism and his sexuality.

“I’m not the first person to talk about his sexuality, but it’s never really been explored at length,” Evans said. The professor recently wrote a biography about Wood that will be published in October.

In a lecture at the symposium titled “Dinner For Threshers: Last Supper or Nativity Scene?” Evans will also explore religious themes in Wood’s work. The painter often used religious iconography, but not because he was overtly religious. Instead, Evans said, Wood used religious themes to depict his family, as in Dinner For Threshers — which shows Wood’s family seated around the dinner table, with his father occupying the position of Jesus.

“Thematically, what he’s doing there is showing us the room where his father died,” Evans said. “Last Supper imagery is almost always about imminent death. To use that kind of comparison to show his father’s death is typical of the strategies he uses.”

Adams will address the darker, more satirical side of Wood’s work in his lecture at the symposium.
“Wood clearly had an ambivalent relationship to the community in which he lived,” Adams said.

“His paintings expressed this interesting mix of celebrating the Midwest but also being full of irony and criticism.”

Among Wood’s religion, alcohol, and sexuality, these findings, to Adams, prove that Wood was more than a hokey regionalist painter.

“This marks a shift in scholarship,” Adams said about new looks into Wood’s life. “I think its going to show Grant Wood is a more significant painter than people have realized.”

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