ELDON — Cultivating a visual arts movement known as Regionalism from the campus at the University of Iowa during the late 1930s, Grant Wood’s Hawkeye legacy remains buried in controversy from a lecture delivered inside the iconic American Gothic House Sunday.
“Grant Wood is Iowa’s most famous artist and his imagery, at least the iconic American Gothic is known the world over and said to be the second most famous painting in the world next to the Mona Lisa,” said Joni Kinsey, a professor within the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History. ”But still, relatively few people know much about his life and work at the University of Iowa in the 1930s, during the last years of his life.”
About 25 people attended the multimedia presentation and listened intently as professor Kinsey explained in credible detail about Wood’s tumultuous time at the University from 1934-42 where he taught painting and mentored students. During that time period, he also supervised the Federal Government funded New Deal mural painting projects and continued to pursue his own artworks.
“Ironically, that is no more true than at the University of Iowa itself, where I teach. There is no Grant Wood building or gallery, no plaques to recall his contributions," noted Kinsey. “There are a number of us that are working to make his profile and reputation stronger at the university. Most of our students are unaware that he even stepped foot on campus.”
According to Kinsey, when Wood arrived on campus in January of 1934, the department of graphic and plastic art was dominated by an administrative legacy of 19th century painting academics.
“Grant Wood as he arrived was really considered an arch modernist who was going to shake things up and change the way things were done. He was considered a liberal painter, a modernist who went against the norm,” said Kinsey.
Consistent with Wood’s vision for change, Kinsey indicated in June of 1934, tensions within the department rose and contributed in the crafting of a document that highlighted these problems. This document is included within the upper cornerstone block of the art department building.
Kinsey read aloud from a copy of the document that is from the University’s archive to the audience. “This is going to describe the problem with thought that the outcome of the conflict between the conservatives and liberals of the faculty will be known when this comes to light and can be interpreted with perspective.”
She reported that the archived information is incomplete. “Just when it says what the problem is, the page is missing. You turn the page and nothing is there,” said Kinsey. “I do not know why. I am very anxious to open that corner stone which is still there and find that document.”
Controversy beyond academic politics would continue to plague Wood at the University. An academic obsession by newly hired Art Department Head Dr. Lester Longman in 1936-58, toiled compulsively throughout his tenure to soil Wood’s artistic achievements and legacy.
“He was dedicated to rebuilding the art department in a new mode. A modernist mode toward what he called an international modernism. He objected strongly to what he called Grant Wood’s atheling method. That means where artists are apprentices to an artist. And, even more significantly, Longman was positioning himself as a contemporary art critic,” said Kinsey.
Kinsey pointed out that Longman’s scholarly preference for international Modernism was inherently antagonistic to Regionalism. Wood’s passionate focus and celebration of rural subjects for depicting American culture and traditions clashed abhorrently with Longman’s refined position which led to a mutual animosity between them.
“Longman personified the bohemian that Grant Wood despised. Longman cast Wood as a reactionary and this was a striking contrast of him being a liberal just two years before. These two men developed a very zealous and personal hatred of each other,” said Kinsey.
This dramatic hatred outlived Grant Wood who died one day before his 51st birthday of pancreatic cancer in 1942. Kinsey’s research went on to implicate Longman’s tactics to cultivate the soiling of Wood’s place in American art and wiping clean his association with the campus until he left the University of Iowa for a similar position with the University of California at Los Angeles in 1958.
“He was convinced that celebrating local character translated to national socialism that merely tolerating Wood’s fame would forever associate him with a region that he considered publicly provincial; Longman felt the need to vilify the ideals that Wood had,” said Kinsey.”
Patrick Shelby can be reached at email@example.com and followed at @CourierPatrick