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Was Iowa ever American Gothic?

The house is still there, but is the much-parodied icon still relevant to the Midwest?

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Des Moines, Iowa

Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is as familiar and comforting as a summer sky, as accessible as a grade-school textbook.

You see it and you know it, the small farmhouse with a Gothic-style window, the dour man, the sour woman, and the pitchfork.

“It was and is the Mona Lisa of Iowa,” says Roy Behrens, a University of Northern Iowa art professor.

But to actually see the painting in Iowa is a rarity. “American Gothic” enjoys pride of place in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has only been exhibited in Iowa eight times since Wood, an Iowa artist, created the work in 1930 after coming upon a home with a Gothic-style window in a railroad town called Eldon.

For a few weeks this winter, Wood’s work is on display at the Des Moines Arts Center, serving as a centerpiece for an enthralling exhibition, “After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism & the Midwest.”

To stand in the packed gallery and watch museum-goers take in the work is akin to watching someone look into a mirror.

Reactions vary. People point and laugh and gape. They stand in reverence and awe. They try to absorb the image they know so well and see it in a new light.

Some say the work looks smaller than they imagined, others say it’s larger. But to most, the painting looks just right, just how they remember it, at least the memory they conjured up through books, TV, and even parodies, since Wood’s work is one of the most parodied art objects in history.


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