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Hedy Reviews “American Gothic” A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting”

By Library Staff

The impetus for reading this book came from a trip to Eldon, Iowa, to visit the original house Grant Wood used as the background for his 1930 iconic painting American Gothic.  If you haven’t been to The American Gothic House Visitor Center, I do recommend it.  The story behind the painting and the subsequent parodies of it are fascinating and, best of all, visitors get to dress up in American Gothic garb and, holding pitchforks, stand in front of the house for a photo opportunity.

Steven Biel includes a capsule biography of Grant Wood’s life, what influenced him, and what he influenced.  I personally admire Wood’s work.  His paintings are interesting to look at in an artistic way and also have underlying meanings which add immensely to the viewing experience.  Biel alerts us to some of this “insider” information.

Biel spends a lot of time on the critiques of American Gothic over the years.  Some art reviewers had been pretty vicious: “American Gothic, its postwar detractors charged, belonged to mass culture’s illegitimate offspring, middlebrow culture or ‘midcult.’ Like all kitsch, middlebrow culture was banal, but it had pretensions to significance and was often ‘able to pass itself off as the real thing.’ Greenberg placed Wood ‘among the notable vulgarizers of our period.’ and blamed him for peddling ‘an inferior product under the guise of high art.” These days American Gothic seems quite beloved and is one of the prize possessions of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Many parodies are interspersed within the text, so it’s fun to read.  The original farmer (or small town gardener) and his wife (or daughter) get up to all kinds of shenanigans.  And probably all 20th and 21st century presidents and their wives have appeared as theAmerican Gothic couple, along with Barbie and Ken, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and all the tourists who get their picture taken in Eldon, Iowa. What fun!

759.13 BI Biel, Steven. “American Gothic: A Life of America’s Most Famous Painting”, 2005, 215 pages