Thursday, January 10, 2013

Want your spirits raised? Don’t read this

This smacks of a very poor cliché but January could be viewed, not only as the start of a new year, but the beginning of the rest of your life. A life that begins with the dreariest month of the year. Not only is the weather inhospitable, but in the aftermath of the Christmas season there is little to look forward to. Other than the rest of your life of course.

Since I am a novice scholar on Grant Wood, I use Google extensively to find a connection between Wood and whatever the subject of the week is. This time his painting, January, immediately popped up along with a narrative from somebody at the Cleveland Museum of Art where the painting is on display. As with the month, it doesn’t do much for the mood. An excerpt of the narrative follows:

“As winter blows outside the windows, my thoughts turn to the painting in our collection that perfectly encapsulates the solitude of mid-western life in this, the bleakest of months… The bleak subject matter of the painting, a frozen snowy landscape of corn shocks, dotted in the foreground with rabbit tracks trailing off, parallels the difficult final years of the artist’s life. At the time he painted the piece, Wood had just finished his seventh year at the University of Iowa. On sabbatical, recently divorced, and in failing health, Wood painted a desperate scene of the harsh truth of nature, exposed in almost geometrical precision on the canvas, row after row.”

It can be assumed that Wood had many good years of his life but 1941—the year he completed the painting—wasn’t going to be one of them. At least according to this entry. The author further explains “within several months, exploratory surgery found inoperable cancer. The artist prepared for the end of his life, while finishing up the remaining work in his studio. As he told his doctor, ‘I’ve still got a lot of pictures I want to paint.’”

Take a moment, if you will, to access the painting and the full narrative: Cleveland Museum of Art.

As can be seen the painting is, in fact, very desolate, and to humanize it, lonely. Perhaps Wood intended it to be. According to the Art Institute Images from Cartography Associates Library it was “Painted at a time when Wood and his work were under attack at the University of Iowa, the piece explores opposing themes of shelter and oblivion.”

During this time Wood and the University of Iowa were at a low point in their relationship. It can be understood why Wood believed he was isolated since other professionals at the university questioned his credentials to teach, as he did not hold a Masters or a Doctorate degree. His life-long ambition to share art with students was in jeopardy. Coupled with a failed marriage and obvious declining health at a relatively young age reason dictates these emotions would reflect in his art.

Upon inspection, the painting is indeed bleak. The corn shocks are lined up in seemingly endless symmetrical rows disappearing only at the horizon. January can be considered one of the longest months of the year, and the corn shocks hint to this. After all it is 31 days long, a length shared by only five other months. This doesn’t make it the longest, but considering the time of year it falls where the weather, other than a warm-up for a few days, seems to drag on, one dreary, cold, short day after another.

It is reported January sold immediately, bought by film producer King Vidor. The Cleveland Museum of Art notes that Vidor remarked about the painting: “In Grant Wood’s ‘January’ I have the whole feeling of America right in my own dining room.”

The remark is a bit hard for me to unpack. If January is so bleak, which it is, both the month and the painting, why would Vidor believe it represented “the whole feeling of America?” Are we all this down in January? It is possible considering the baggage that comes with the month—the post-Christmas blues, the resolutions intended to improve but the fact one needs made is an indication of a shortcoming, tax season on the horizon, and, of course, the seemingly endless depressing weather. With Wood facing all that, as well as his personal luggage weighting him down, it is no wonder that January reflects such a forlorn landscape.

Feel any better? I thought not.

If you are still reading after those depressing thoughts, there is a bright spot in the month and it will be this Saturday, Jan. 12 at Bridge View Center where, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. the annual Eagle Watch will be in full swing.

The Eagle Watch features a program, displays, a hike along the Des Moines River and eagle watching, with spectacular views of eagles flying and feeding on the Des Moines River from both inside and outside Bridge View.

Besides the eagles the staff at the American Gothic House Center will be inside Bridge View (where it is warm) manning a booth where, in case you don’t get a photograph of an eagle, the American Gothic face cutout will be set up and ready for pictures. Coloring sheets will also be on hand, along with the current calendar of events and raffle tickets for the American Gothic House print.

Till next time.

Brian Chambers
Media Coordinator
American Gothic House Center

The American Gothic House Center strives to become financially independent through gift shop revenue, sponsorships, and by establishing an endowment fund. Funds raised in this campaign will be used to match the Iowa Cultural Trust Endowment Challenge Grant and will become endowment funds to support the Center's annual operations. As a subscriber to the weekly newsletter, you have already shown support for the American Gothic House Center. I invite you to strengthen your role in the valuable experience we provide the community by making a contribution to our fund drive. Click here to give your tax deductible gift, or head to our website for more information. Thank you to all who have donated so far!
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