Arts & Culture

'Seriously Funny': Cedar Rapids Museum of Art shows parodies of Grant Wood's iconic painting

Exhibit that runs through May 2 highlights spoofs of American Gothic

Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, especially likes this #x201c;American Gothic#x201d; par
Kate Kunau, associate curator at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, especially likes this “American Gothic” parody, which she notes combines three other famous paintings in one, with Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” a Van Gogh self-portrait and his “Starry Night” sky. Examples of the way others have superimposed their humor and artistry on Grant Wood’s most famous painting will be on display at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art from Saturday through May 2. (Photos courtesy of Cedar Rapids Museum of Art)
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Nearly 91 years after “American Gothic” wowed the world, Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting continues to tickle viewers’ fancy.

Some of those viewers have left their mark on mass-produced copies of Wood’s dour-faced man and woman, replacing their faces with those of Kermit and Miss Piggy, the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter, and The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Vincent Van Gogh. Others have added “yuppie” props, quarantine masks, snow sporting gear and even a McDonald’s hamburger speared on the farmer’s pitchfork.

These images and more will be on the walls and in a digital feed at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “Seriously Funny: American Gothic Parodies” opens Saturday (1/16) and continues through May 2 in the second-floor back gallery. But you won’t see the original “American Gothic.” You’ll have to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see that.

What you will see are 23 physical pieces of ephemera — collectible memorabilia most often written or printed, like magazine covers, greeting cards and newspaper cartoons — framed and in groupings, as well as a five-minute digital slideshow of more recent pop culture parodies, playing on a loop.

All are pieces given to the museum and housed there, but since they are mass-produced pieces, not original works, they are museum property, but weren’t accessioned to the permanent collection, noted Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator.

Parodies fall under a rather nebulous concept, she said.

“A parody is an imitation of the style of a particular writer or artist, with a deliberate exaggeration for comic effect,” she explained. “So it’s a comical imitation of another work, like (the movie) ‘Pride and Prejudice & Zombies.’”

Fascination with American Gothic

Why are we still so obsessed with “American Gothic,” painted at 5 Turner Alley in Cedar Rapids and owned and exhibited by the Art Institute of Chicago?

“There are a lot of thoughts about that, and I have gone into a lot of research about this,” Kunau said.

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For insight, she has spoken a couple of times with Wanda Corn, a professor emeriti from the Stanford Department of Art and Art History.

“She’s one of the preeminent scholars of American art history generally, but certainly the preeminent Grant Wood scholar,” Kunau said, “and she’s actually writing a book on “American Gothic’ right now.”

Kunau also spoke with a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, who “speculated that people have always parodied it because it’s such a blank slate,” Kunau said. “There’s no expression on either face and so it’s very easy to slot in different emotions or different people and make it different that way.

“I think also, it was immediately a painting that really grabbed people from 1930, when the image of it was published after it won the prize at the Art Institute.

“It was really polarizing,” Kunau noted. “You had people on the East Coast who saw it as this indictment of the puritanical rural people of the middle of the country. And then you had women in Iowa who were really offended and thought it made them look backward, and there are housewives who wrote letters about it.

“So it’s always really made people feel a lot of things. It’s been a very emotive piece ever since its creation,” Kunau said.

Painting is easy to parody

Parodies began popping up right away, in the 1930s and ’40s, she added.

“When we’re talking about parody of art, there’s really three paintings I would say, that get talked about: ‘American Gothic,’ the ‘Mona Lisa,’ and in a very distant third, probably Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks.’”

But it’s “American Gothic” that Kunau said is the most parodied work — even more so than “Mona Lisa.”

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“I think it’s because it’s a couple, so that obviously opens it up to talk a lot about a lot of different things, and so this exhibition looks at both. In pop culture, it’s very easy to see it as Shrek and Fiona or C-3PO and R2-D2 or one that I was just looking at, Morticia Addams and Edgar Allan Poe,” Kunau said.

“It really lends itself to talking about things — talking about the family and talking about Middle America — because there are two people. I think it’s actually a little bit harder to parody the ‘Mona Lisa’ in a socially interesting way, because it’s just one person, whereas when you have two people, it’s immediately a conversation between the two of them.”

Grant Wood’s art ‘Still very relevant’

If Oscar Wilde’s notion of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery is true, what would Wood think about all this?

“He had a really good sense of humor,” Kunau said. “I always point to his ‘Daughters of Revolution’ painting as an example. He had a really good sense of humor about his art. There were things like the Mourner’s Bench and the fact that he used a coffin door as the door to his house, so I think he would love it, actually. ...

“I think he would be really happy, obviously, that one of his paintings was still so present in pop culture almost one hundred years hence, and I think he would really appreciate the humor with which people have dealt with it. ...

“In the original painting, he really cultivated the ambiguity of who these people were.” Were they husband and wife or father and daughter? He never really answered that, Kunau said. “So I think he would love the fact that people have seen it as a jumping off point for all of these different interpretations.”

She hopes the exhibition shows modern viewers how art can remain relevant and outlive the artist by decades and even centuries.

“With Grant Wood, we’re going over 90 (years) that people are still talking about his art, and that’s still very relevant both in popular culture and in sociopolitical circles,” she said.

“I think that’s a really great take away: that art is really important. Art gives us a way to talk about ourselves and to talk about the society that we’re living in. We’re using this painting that was done in 1930 to talk about social concepts today. As a kind of serious underpinning to a funny exhibition, it emphasizes that art really helps us discuss life and it helps us discuss how society is changing, and how we view ourselves.”

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Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: “Seriously Funny: American Gothic Parodies”

• Where: Second floor gallery, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE

• When: Jan. 16 to May 2

• Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

• Admission: $8 adults; $7 college students and ages 62 and over; $4 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under

• Safety: Masks or face coverings required

• Information: crma.org/exhibitions/upcoming/seriously-funny-american-gothic-parodies

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