Not something I’d ever though to see: an exhibit devoted to Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum in New York. Eons ago, I’d seen his work on his home turf. The impression it left was indelible. I’ve often wished I could see the works on display in Cedar Rapids once again.
Woman with Plants was one of the paintings I’d seen back then. As one who had (and of course neglected) a college dorm-room sansevieria, I had special appreciation for the hearty, upright specimen Wood’s mother held in her hands.
Back then, though, I hadn’t truly cottoned on to Wood’s uncanny ability to bring out the patterns in every Iowa landscape he chose to paint. I’d lived in that landscape for many years, but only now, at a long remove from my time in Iowa, did I see how well he played its music.
The ambiguity of nostalgia spoke loudly in the exhibit, too.
By 1935, Grant Wood began to streamline his landscape style, replacing the ornamental frills and mannerisms of his earlier work with broad, reductive shapes. He retained this stylistic simplification as he shifted to more patriotic subject matter in response to his worry that America had lost its will to defend itself against fascism, which was on the rise in Europe. He envisioned a series of paintings of American folktales, beginning with Parson Weems’s fictional account of George Washington as a child confessing to having chopped down his father’s cherry tree.
Faced with Nazi victories over the Allies in the first years of World War II, Wood turned his attention to depicting what he called the “simple, everyday things that make life significant to the average person” in order to awaken the country to what it stood to lose. [citation]
What did he, and what do we, make of his depiction of slaves in the background of Parson Weems’ Fable? Wood, we are told from a wall plaque, intended the painting to inspire national pride, though he “aimed to avoid the patriotic excess associated with fascist exploitation of national mythologies.” [citation] It’s hard to judge whether he succeeded, either then or now.
It certainly appears he succeeded with his Daughters of the Revolution, and his intended commentary stands up today.
Wood aimed to ridicule the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for their claims to nobility based on ancestry, which he saw as antithetical to their celebration of democracy. The artist painted three of the group’s members in front of a reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River, contrasting the future president’s dynamism and bravery with the Daughters’s stiff poses, contemptuous expressions, and the inconsequential action of raising a teacup. New York critics celebrated the painting’s biting satire when it premiered at the Whitney Biennial in 1932, with one calling it “as delicious as it is wicked,” but it was met by protests from various DAR chapters that deemed it un-American. [citation]
Of all things, the exhibit made me wish that, in the many times I’d visited or drove through West Branch, I’d stopped at least once to visit the Herbert Hoover home.
Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the thirty-first U.S. president, was born in West Branch, Iowa, in a modest three-room cottage where he lived for the first six years of his life. Although subsequent owners made the cottage nearly invisible by moving a two-story house in front of it, Hoover’s presidency turned his childhood home into a national tourist attraction.
In Wood’s painting, a tiny figure stands on the lawn pointing theatrically to the original home. Wood’s initial drawing for this work includes an insert featuring Hoover’s humble birthplace—a visual device like those used by nineteenth-century cartographers to symbolize progress. In both of Wood’s works, miniature buildings, foliage, and people resemble painted toys, creating an eerie hallucinatory effect that hints at Wood’s attempt to recapture the magic and innocence of childhood. The Iowa Republicans who had commissioned the work as a present to Hoover disliked the image and returned the painting to Wood without payment. [citation]
Michael Daugherty wrote:
I first became aware of Grant Wood when I was a ten-year-old boy enrolled in art classes at the old Cedar Rapids Public Library (now the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art). Prominently displayed in the room where we learned to draw and paint was Grant Wood’s original painting of his mother, entitled Woman with Plant (1928). I realized that Grant Wood was everywhere in Cedar Rapids: his paintings and lithographs at the Museum of Art; his farm mural at the old Montrose Hotel; his carved wooden Mourner’s Bench in the principal’s office at McKinley Junior High School; his stained glass Memorial Window at the Veteran’s Memorial Building. I often rode my bicycle past the artist’s studio at 5 Turner Alley, where Grant Wood created his most famous painting, American Gothic (1930). . . .
The title of the third movement [of American Gothic] refers to the pitchfork gripped by the dour farmer who stands alongside his spinster daughter in Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. Many have speculated on the hidden meanings of this American masterpiece: is it a homage to the farmers of Iowa? A social satire? A political critique? A private joke? For me, this iconic painting reveals the ambiguities of American culture and Grant Wood’s dry wit. After all, Grant Wood was a founding member of the infamous Grant Wood Garlic Club in Cedar Rapids, and a practical joker, like my father. [citation]
Antonin Dvořák, String Quintet in E♭ major, Op. 97 (1893)
An item about Antonin Dvorak appeared in papers nationwide — including The Gazette — in the summer of 1893 that read, “Dvorak, the musical composer, goes to bed every night at 8:30 and is up in the morning at 4:30. Thus his work is over by breakfast, and he has the rest of the day to devote to social and other pursuits.”
What it didn’t say was that the famous Czech composer had quietly moved into a house in Spillville in northeast Iowa with his wife, Anna, and their six children at the beginning of June. . . .
The summer was productive for Dvorak. He rounded up his friend Joseph on cello, Joseph’s father, John Kovarik, on second violin, and his daughter, Cecilia, on the viola to play along with his own first violin so he could see how a couple of his new compositions sounded.
His Quartet in F major, Op. 96, also known as his “American Quartet,” and his String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97 (scored for an additional viola) most likely were heard in Spillville.
It is believed he refined his “New World Symphony” on the organ at St. Wenceslaus. [citation]
In 1993, Bernard Holland reported on a centennial celebration of Dvořák’s summer in Spillville:
Spillville — then as now a Moravian farming community of 400 souls — is inundated not by floodwaters but by visiting scholars and musicians. The Martinu String Quartet and the Morava Hammer Dulcimer Band are in town. The Czech Government has sent along a bust of the composer. When not interpreting, Irina Vaneckova can be seen ducking into the New World Inn at the corner of Main Street and Route 325, advising cooks on the intricacies of the Czech hamburger. [citation]
Credits: Sources for the quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, are mine.