Sunday, July 31, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Gothic Classic

As America's most famous painting celebrates its 75th birthday, Keith Laidlaw looks at how Grant Wood's homely masterpiece became such an important - and parodied - symbol in the U.S.

It is a painting that seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely cultural icon for today's America. First exhibited in 1930, Grant Wood's imaginary couple in 19th-century Iowa are drab, old-fashioned and austere, more like traditional, Northern-European Presbyterians than citizens of a country about to define our modern age. Even the painting's name, American Gothic, invokes the dark horrors of the old world rather than the bright hopes of the new (although it actually refers to the architectural style of the wood-panelled house in the background).

But the pair also appear stoic and hardworking, and can be seen to represent a rigid mid-Western conservativism that, from the pioneers to present-day Republicans, has become America's dominant moral force. In a new book about the painting, Steven Biel notes that the painting, even more than symbols such as the Stars and Stripes or Statue of Liberty, has "helped create American identity" by giving it a white face and "locating" it in a generic middle ground of classless Middle America.

Wood always maintained the painting was intended as a celebration of the simple folks it portrays, although many critics allege it is a sneering caricature. Whichever is true, the other images shown demonstrate that it is parody which has really cemented the painting's iconic status.

'American Gothic' by Steven Biel (£13.99, Norton) is out 22 August