That Famous Pitchfork: An Artist’s View of Depression Era America (2024)

That Famous Pitchfork: An Artist’s View of Depression Era America (1)

As any American whoGrant Wood was and only a handful will know.

Then ask them aboutthe painting, “American Gothic” and most will say, “Oh, yes. Of course! Thecouple and the farm and the pitchfork.”

The classicpainting of a grim looking man and woman, the man with the pitchfork, standingin front of a farm house in the Midwest in 1930, so familiar to all, has beencalled “America’s Mona Lisa” and justifiably so.

The painting, byGrant Wood, is a triumph. The tragedy is that he is only known for that workwhen, in fact, he drew hundreds of paintings and sketches about life in theMidwest in the 1920s and thirties, gorgeous, memorable pieces of art that arejust unforgettable when you see them and yet he remains famous for that one,single, work.

The Whitney Museum, on GansevoortStreet, in New York, wants to change all of that. The museum just opened up an absorbingexhibit of Wood’s work. It devoted several large galleries to his paintingsand, together, they tell a marvelous story with vivid colors of tough, resoluteMidwesterners determined not only to survive the Depression in the 1930s, but toprevail over it.

One of the firstpaintings you see when you walk into the exhibit is a lustrous sketch of acolonial era mansion in a deep green forest. Out front is a man riding a horse,waving his hat to the home’s inhabitants. It is gorgeous and a fine opening tothis historic look at the Mid-west.

There are numerous portraits of women over theyears that are of photograph clarity. His mother, whom he called “a pioneer ofthe mid-west” is featured in one of them. His Great Aunt, small chin and verysomber, is in another.

There are allkinds of paintings from the past, such as George’s Washington’s dad scoldinghim for chopping down the cherry tree and not one, but two paintings ofPresident Hoover’s birthplace. There is Wood’s beautiful version of themidnight ride of Paul Revere, with a huge church steeple as the centerpiece.There are is a 1920s portrait of a boy, around ten, holding a football, a manswinging a golf club, a boy carrying a basket of corn, a woman trying to buy achicken held by a man. There are numerous paintings of all or parts of Depressionera Iowa farm villages, with a from-the-air vantage looks. There are severallarge and colorful sketches of rolling Iowa farm fields and meadows. Woodpainted a majestic portrait of the tiny town if Stone City, Iowa, with itsquaint bridge, in 1930. There are a few paintings that depict springtime insmall Iowa villages. Wood’s people are very realistic and appear to have justjumped from the room onto the canvas.

The exhibit is anice tribute to Wood and to his work on the Depression and the people of theMidwest. It really was heartwarming, too, to see the lush summer wonderland ofIowa on a cold day in New York, snow everywhere you looked.

Wood, who livedin Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spent the 1920s trying to copy French impressionist artand made several trips to Europe to study that art form. By the late 1920s, hedecided that he could be successful with American paintings, particularly thoseof farm life and people, using an impressionistic style. What emerged was hisvery own, strong, American style

“American Gothic” is, ofcourse, the centerpiece of the exhibit, jammed with people on the day that Iwas there. Two dozen or so people at a time stared at it. The woman in thepainting is Wood’s younger sister and the man is his dentist. They are standingin front of a real farm house in Eldon, Iowa. The dentist was thrilled to be inthe picture but the sister always complained that he made her look too old.Most people believe they are a pair of married farmers. Most people also feelthat the photo is a satire of grumpy, stern Midwesterners, but Wood said theyare supposed to represent sturdy, strong Americans.

To show you howmuch people know of the painting, and how little they know, is this anecdote. Awoman with blonde hair, wearing a short blue coat, trailing her husband,stopped in front of the security guard at the entrance to the gallery.

“I want to see thepitchforks. Where are the pitchforks?” she said to the smiling guard.

In front of thework of art itself, where many had their pictures taken, people said the oddestthings.

“I wonder if thosetwo are looking west or east?” said one woman.

“How come the womandoesn’t have a pitchfork, too,” said another.

“I wonder how tall they were?” asked a man.

“How hot was itwhen he painted this?”

“What’s with thepitchfork?” said yet another.

The painting wasunveiled in 1930 and became an immediate sensation. Art critics have writtenabout it endlessly, telling their readers that it represented the Midwest, orAmerica, or the nuclear family, or farm life, on the Depression, or rurallifestyle. They have gone on for pages.

A guide at themuseum said it best. The woman, in her early twenties, in a dark brown dress, bigsmile on her face, shrugged when asked by someone why “American Gothic” is sofamous.

“I think that thereis something in it for everybody. It intrigues everybody but it intrigues themin many different ways,” she said, and she is right. You can’t exactly say whyit is so wonderful, but you acknowledge that it is (the painting has appearedin cartoons, newspaper drawings, film and television for decades).

The Whitneycurator, Barbara Haskell, did a superb job in both selecting what paintings touse and how to stage the exhibit.

First, it is wellorganized. There are portrait paintings, farm art, landscape paintings, women, murals,a spectacular, colorful, large stained-glass window he created to honorAmerica’s war dead and even artwork he did for Sinclair Lewis’ book, Main Street. You go room by room to lookat them and the order gives completeness to the exhibit. 2) she and herassociates wrote detailed descriptions of the work, and Wood, that adorn thewalls. When you finish, you learned a lot. 3) she chose works that underscoreWood’s theme all of his life, that Americans are good and strong people andwill defeat the Depression, 4) she hung “American Gothic” on one wall, alone,so visitors could get a good look at it, 5) while acknowledging the fame of“American Gothic,” she chose numerous other works that underscore Woods role asa brilliant artist.

Ironically, justbehind the exhibit on the fifth floor is an enormous window that offers aspectacular view of Lower Manhattan and the Hudson River that serves as amajestic “painting” itself, a painting Woods might had done himself.

A comic moment in this delightful exhibit: aguide finished talking about paintings of Iowa when an 8 or nine-year-old kidlooked up at his mom and said “Iowa does not look at all like New York City.”

No, it does not.

The exhibit will be atthe Whitney through June 10.

That Famous Pitchfork: An Artist’s View of Depression Era America (2024)
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