Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930
Much fanfare this week as Grant Wood's masterpiece American Gothic arrives in London for the very first time. The undisputed heavyweight star of the Royal Academy's Depression-straddling show America after the Fall, it is, perhaps, the most famous of all American paintings. Wood's stone-faced Iowan couple have been parodied everywhere from The Simpsons to The Muppets to the pages of Britain's own Spectator Magazine (another couple, another White House). Not too bad for a work that could only manage third prize in a 1930 painting competition.
So what's the appeal? Well, for one, American Gothic is, like fellow parodied-ee the Mona Lisa, a great divider. Are the couple and their neat, gothic home a homage to small-town America, or a stinging satire of it? Is the purpose to mock the provincial values of the Midwestern United States or romanticise them? And, most crucially, are the couple even a couple? (Well, no, according to Woods, who wrote in a 1941 letter: "The persons in the painting, as I imagined them, are small town folks, rather than farmers. Papa runs the local bank or perhaps the lumber yard … The prim lady with him is his grown-up daughter.")
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
Perhaps a better question would be, why now? Hanging in the gallery's Sackler wing, Wood's American Gothic is just one of almost 50 paintings chosen to illustrate the RA's exploration of the years between the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and America's entry into the Second World War. A period of social and economic upheaval - the "fall" of the show's title - the works on display capture the hopes, dreams, insecurities and inequalities of a time when rising nationalism, racial division and pressures of migration combined to create a decade like no other. If it all sounds a little too close to home, it should: artists as diverse as Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock searching for what it means to be American in an age eerily similar to our own.
Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1938-41
"Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. If only he knew how timely the art of this most turbulent decade would become again.
America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s is at London's Royal Academy of Arts from 25 February to 4 June.
Text Matthew Whitehouse