Grant Wood: Culture Changer or Nazi Sympathizer?

August 23, 2021
Karen Wingate
Karen Wingate

August's Artist of the Month: Karen Wingate

Karen Wingate is an author, speaker, and Bible study leader. In addition to her role as a pastor’s wife and women’s ministry coordinator, she worked for years writing Christian education curriculum for Salvation Army, Standard Publishing, and Rainbow books, and has contributed articles to many national magazines, devotional guides, and compilation books. Karen and her husband, Jack, have now retired to Tucson where Karen spent her first 23 years. For most of her life, Karen was legally blind, until a surgery in 2016 gave her the best sight she had ever had in her life. She administrates a Facebook group, What I Saw Today, that celebrates the gift of sight and the things we see on a daily basis. Her book, With Fresh Eyes: 60 Insights into the Miraculously Ordinary from a Woman Born Blind, releases October 26, 2021.

Karen's Speaking Engagements:Sept 20, 2021 - Young at Heart Seniors group, Sierra Vista, AZ –  August 22, 2021 - Presentation to the Ready Writers: “The Place of Prayer in your Writing Ministry.” September 9,2021 - Interview with Mark Harris for the “You are the Light of your City” podcast September 22, 2021 - “Young at Heart” Seniors Group, First Christian Church, Sierra Vista. October Book Launch Party - Location and date to be determined.  November 13, 2021 - Book signing Gospel Supplies, Tucson

Media&ARTS: Grant Wood: Culture Changer or Nazi Sympathizer?
by Timothy Loraditch

This past weekend, as I was rummaging through the back corner of one of Tucson’s many second-hand shops, I discovered an overlooked treasure hidden on a neglected shelf of the used book section. Like many scavengers before me, I had no idea what I had found until I got it home and started to read. It was just another one of those large paperback art books that examine the career of a famous artist. If you ever dig through the used book sections, you have seen many of them. They typically feature large color prints of the artist's most recognizable work, along with a few of the lesser-known works to illustrate the artist's development. Often these are companion books to a traveling exposition of the artists’ works, in which case most of the work in the show will be featured prominently in the book. At other times they are an effort to boost the artist’s exposure to the public, enhance his popularity among art enthusiasts, and increase the value of his works. I pick them up from the discount section for the large reproductions of the artwork and the minimal impact on my book budget.

This one however was about Grant Wood, entitled Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision written by Wanda M. Corn. Wood holds a very particular interest for me - an interest that was only amplified by spending this past weekend reading Wood’s biography included in the book. If you don’t know, Grant Wood painted the iconic painting of a father and daughter in front of a farmhouse titled American Gothic in 1930. Most everyone knows the painting or one of the many recreations of the iconic American masterpiece. A few know the artist’s name. Even among art historians, there are perhaps few who study Wood and his career extensively. It is perhaps only due to my particular interest that I can be counted among the ones familiar with the artist beyond the basics.

In this relatively short biography, Corn provides an intriguing look at Wood, his journey to becoming an artist, and the eventual goals that drove his efforts. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the artist is that he lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Corn illustrates well the struggle Iowans had with their cultural identity, and how Wood was very much in the center of this struggle.

Wood developed into a sought-after young designer and artist in the Cedar Rapids community. He traveled to Europe to study art but eventually became an advocate for the development of the home-grown arts and artists in Iowa. Concerned about the tendency of local artists and builders to copy the esthetics of the east or west coast, Wood, along with others, began to advocate for a regional esthetic and to encourage artists and writers to work with the experiences directly around them rather than copying the artistic directions coming out of New York and Paris. He also insisted that artists paint what can be seen rather than simply felt. This new direction, called Regionalism, soon drove much of Wood’s efforts for the rest of his life. It also became the source of his undoing.
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Corn writes a very readable biography about this key artist from this very short-lived movement, at a critical juncture of American art. It is a movement that produced American Gothic. A 25 ¾” x 30 ¾” oil on Beaver Board ™ painting that may well be the most recognizable American painting in the short history of American art. Unfortunately for Wood, times were changing rapidly. American abstraction was developing in New York and gaining influence. Even in Iowa, art critics like H. W. Janson detested what Wood and other artists like him stood for. Janson attacked Regionalism by comparing it to the art purges in Germany before WW II. He wrote in 1946, “Many of the paintings officially approved by the Nazis recall the works of the regionalists in this country.”[1]  The article closely equates Regionalism with Nationalism and in turn Nazism in ways that are obviously, even to 21st century Americans, a political and cultural assassination of the artist and his work. At a time when Americans detested everything German, the attack was hard to survive. 

This is an unfortunate script that seems to continue to be played out even today. The Cancel Culture has deep roots in American history and perhaps in human nature. American Gothic is an affirmation of American identity at the beginning of the cultural civil war between Americans and American art. Despite the many attacks on the work, it remains perhaps the most significant American painting. Since its creation, it has been parodied by many artists to express the cultural changes happening in America. Originally submitted to the 1930 juried annual art show in Chicago, it won third place but was on magazine covers across the US the next day. Americans loved the painting and continue to do so even to this day. Over 50 examples of recreations since the original are included in Corn’s publication, mostly magazine covers, and cartoons, describing the latest cultural trends among the American people. 

Grant Wood, Regionalism, and American Gothic mark American art’s departure from American popular culture. American abstractionism began to walk away from the American

[1] Janson, H.W. “Benton and Wood, Champions of Regionalism,” Magazine of Art 39. May 1946. 186.
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