American Gothic, American Icon

Slate’s Mia Fine reviews the new book American Gothic by historian Steven Biel, and tells us why the painting by Grant Wood has endured.

But the key to this painting’s enduring appeal is not its subject or
its inherent ambiguity, but its form—specifically, the stark frontality
of the figures. Think about the other iconic images from art history:
the Mona Lisa, Munch’s Scream, Warhol’s Marilyn, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.
All of them depict human figures directly facing the viewer—just like
the flatly frontal images of saints in medieval Christian icons.
Rendering figures in this way imprints them on our memories and endows
them with both authority and immediacy. Early Christians believed icons
were like portals that allowed the viewer to communicate directly with
the sacred figure represented. Modern secular icons like American Gothic
still retain some vestige of sacredness, in the sense that they connect
with something larger—not with the divine, but with the collective
memory of our image-loving culture.


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