May 24, 2005
American Gothic - 75 years of an icon
For the 75th anniversary of American Gothic, Harvard historian and social critic Steven Biel has written a book, American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting. The painting portrays the artist's sister and his elderly dentist (photo taken in 1942).
Biel summarizes the significance of the image:
"During the Depression, it came to represent endurance in hard times through the quintessential American values of thrift, work, and faith. Later, in television, advertising, politics, and popular culture, American Gothic evolved into parody—all the while remaining a lodestar by which one might measure closeness to or distance from the American heartland."
NPR's Melissa Gray offers this audio commentary of American Gothic Gray explores the composition of the work: "The three-pronged pitchfork is one obvious example, but look more closely and you'll see echoes of the design on the face of the man, the bib of his overalls, and the lines on his shirt. In fact, the straightforward Gothic style extends to the directness of the painting itself... In addition to its architectural connotations, "Gothic" can also mean crude or underdeveloped. It's an implication Wood was likely aware of when he titled the painting, though it's unlikely that this was his sole observation about the pair."
In 1942, Gordon Parks provided the first parody American Gothic. It is a parody without humor though:
"American Gothic," considered to be Parks's signature image, was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1942, during the photographer's fellowship with the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up by President Roosevelt to aid farmers in despair. "It's the first professional image I ever made," Parks says, "created on my first day in Washington." Roy Stryker, who led the FSA's very best documentary photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, etc.—told Parks to go out and get acquainted with the city. Parks was amazed by the amount of bigotry and discrimination he encountered on his very first day. "White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn't even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse." Stryker told Parks to go talk with some older black people who had lived their entire lives in Washington and see how they had coped. "That's how I met Ella," Parks explains.
Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Parks asked her about her life, which she divulged as having been full of misery, bigotry and despair. Parks's simple question, "Would you let me photograph you?" and Ella's affirmative response, led to the photographer's most recognizable image of all time. "Two days later Stryker saw the image and told me I'd gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was 'an indictment of America.' I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post ." At the time, Parks couldn't have realized that the image would go on to become the symbol of the pre-civil rights era's treatment of minorities. "
"American Gothic could not work as parody if the original did not have power of its own. Biel is not an art critic, and he hesitated to comment on the painting, apart from the myriad understandings others have had. But when pressed to do so, he gazed up at it over his desk and mused, 'It's haunting -- creepy in a lot of ways. Look at those faces. They're disturbing. Why isn't she looking at us? He is -- why isn't she? What does he want, peering into our souls? He is holding a pitchfork, but there's no dirt on it. Is he posing with it because this is Sunday afternoon and this is one of the tools of his trade? Or is there something -- more sinister?'"Posted by sfenton at May 24, 2005 08:42 AM